Tribe

I recently read a book called “The Last Safe Investment: Spending Now to Increase Your True Wealth Forever” (by Bryan Franklin and Michael Ellsberg). The authors came and spoke at my place of work about their theses – and we had time for questions and answers.

The book had two interesting concepts in it, for thinking about. The first was about Happiness Exchange Rate. In my perfect world, I’d write a blog post dedicated to my thoughts on that topic, so I won’t go into more detail here. (In the actual world, you should probably just read the book to find out for yourself, because intended blog posts are a loooooong way away from reality.)

The second interesting concept was Tribe, and how a Tribe both helped you get money (which you could use to make yourself happy), it also just plain makes yourself happy.

This was a weekend for Tribe.

A small part of my tribe
A small part of my tribe

There are few things that make me feel richer than dwelling on my friends. This weekend, we held the first annual “Flynn’s Fiery Feast” – to provide that critical third gathering between Piemas and Mocksgiving. For those who don’t follow me regularly, those are two “made up” holidays in November and March where 30-40 grownups and associated children get together and eat a lot and play board games and enjoy each other’s company. The people represented are a venn diagram of several social circles: college friends, gaming friends, internet friends, church friends, family, neighbors and a small handful of coworkers. (It’s also fewer people than I’d like to invite, but after about 50 humans in it, my house is just too small to add more. Don’t think because you’re not at that party we aren’t friends – we are – the parties just can’t get much bigger.)

We laughed and joked and caught up and ate and played board games and sat around the fire and had an awesome time. I felt like Scrooge McDuck, swimming in his gigantic pool of gold, surrounded by a real wealth of love and warm feelings. And then my friends helped clean up before they left. Seriously, people. It doesn’t get better than that.

Bryan and Michael say in there book that a Tribe is key to wealth – not only because it gives you the happiness that you’re theoretically trying to get enough money to have, but because it can help you in a thousand practical ways. And I’ve seen that play out for myself. Perhaps the tightest Tribe in my diagram is a group of moms who get together about once a month, and chat often on Facebook. This group of ladies is mostly just for fun. We do talk about parenting books, and exchange ideas about how to make our lives and the lives of others better. We support each other in fitness, borrow each other’s steam cleaners and babysitters, and know we can put out an all-call for whether someone has condensed milk handy (so we don’t have to go to a store and interrupt our baking).

Stuffing eggs for an egg hunt
Stuffing eggs for an egg hunt

But we also provide a backstop for each other whose depth may appear hidden. One of our moms’ husband was in a near-fatal car accident. For a few weeks, we delivered home made, love-stuffed meals and snacks. As you read about last week, one of our moms needs to raise $15,000 to get her son a service dog. The fundraiser is being led by the other moms, bringing together pretty amazing skills and collaboration. For a few months our regular chat is being replaced by party planning, and no one has said anything but “how can I help”? It’s this amazing sense of knowing that someone has your back (especially with little family in the area), to have a group of people like this.

Bryan and Michael describe a Tribe this way, “Tribe is simply a networked group of friends bound by their caring for one another and for a similar aesthetic for life. But when a group of friends become networked – when each knows the other – something else, not available from simple friendship, emerges.” (The Last Safe Investment, Franklin & Ellsberg, p. 277) They talk a lot about how important it is that the relationships are not “hub and spokes”, but a matrix of connections. They talk about how key shared values are to a tribe. And they go WAY FURTHER from my happy groups of friends to actual communal living.

They also have a Silicon Valley-esque focus on entrepreneurship. I asked when they gave their talk if this sort of group of people wouldn’t have the effect of compounding inequality. (Rich people with rich friends would be richer. Poor people with poor friends would not.) They assured me their Tribe cut across income. (In retrospect, however, I’m curious if it cuts across class. I wonder what degree of disparity in educational attainment and opportunity a Silicon-Valley-based-tribe actually has. Not, mind, that my Tribes are that much more class diverse.) They also talk a lot about how creating repeated opportunities for people to come together can create Tribe. (Which was actually my proximate cause for finally getting around to scheduling the long-contemplated third holiday.)

Coming out of the book talk, I started chatting with my coworkers about the topic, and realized something.

Quick: describe a group of people who have relationships with each other (not around a central figure), who come together very regularly, who cut across generational & class lines, who support each other, and who have strong shared values.

Does that ring a bell?

I realized, in that conversation, that the Tribe is the Church. That hole left in society when people walked away from both theology and communal worship is a gaping one, and it needs to be filled. It makes sense that groups and ideas like this one would be developed to plug the gap. But I also think that maybe churches need to see themselves a bit more like Tribes. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we saw ourselves as a group of people who come together because of shared values to support (and enjoy) each other, and then to turn our collective will towards service towards each other and the world? When we say “my Church” – how many of us imagine the building? The steeple and communion table and pews? Instead, it would be awesome if we thought of that great cloud of friends we have in the church. Take Jesus and the disciples – there was a Tribe to be reckoned with. (And they didn’t even have a building!) The early church actually did take it all the way to communal living. I think that as a congregation we can aspire to that same sense of joyful security that I get when I think of my friends.


Do you have a tribe? Who do you lean on in times of trouble? What do you do to build up your connections? I’d love to hear how this concept looks from your point of view!

Up in the air

Up in the Air

It’s been a long time since I last traveled for business. I was thinking about it the other day, trying to remember my last trip. I think it was all the way back in June, when I flew out to San Francisco and went to a boy scout camp in the redwoods with my then-new colleagues. That may actually have been the last time I was on a plane. It seems a little hard to believe – for several years I’ve been flying every other month or so on average. Sometimes it was all clumped together so that I was hitting Logan every other week. But we drove to Canada for our big summer trip, and didn’t go anywhere over the holidays so… it may have been half a year since I traveled.

I’m traveling now, of course. In that casual miracle of flight, I’m thirty thousand feet over frozen fields. Unlike the April-warmth of Boston right now, these fields are white. Our itinerary brings us over Canada, which is relevant because apparently the inflight internet doesn’t work over Canada, and it’s a bit hard to bring myself to pay $50 for wifi access that won’t work most of the flight, even if I am not the one who is really paying for it. I’m headed to Seattle, and the way the time zones work I’ll have most of a full day’s work still in that office once I land, so perhaps I don’t have to rush. After this trip, there are some more stacked up. Some are already booked (Anaheim later in the month). Some are only possibilities.

I think my least favorite thing about flying – other than how heavy my bags are to schlep – is the sleep I get the night before. If I am flying out and it requires me to get up even 20 minutes before my regular wakening, I don’t sleep well. I’m convinced I’m going to sleep through my alarm and miss my flight and get fired. Or, you know, minority inconvenience people (almost as dire). So I don’t sleep very well. I think I got only about four hours of sleep last night – which was the second night in a row I was significantly short on sleep. Perhaps instead of working on this flight I’ll exchange my time for some very low quality drowsing. On the plus side, hotel sleep is best sleep. Mmmmm…..

The biggest tumult in my life lately has been at church. Church is an unusual place to experience tumult, especially non-drama related tumult. But it is a hard, hard time in the life of my congregation. To sum up – our pastor of 35 years retired about a year and a half ago. There was a triumphal Easter and a farewell to a pair whom I’ve known and loved since I first arrived in Boston. Then there was this long period before we got to call an interim. It was too long. We felt unfocused and drifting, but I was committed to the process. I know that one doesn’t just say farewell to a relationship like that and snap into a new one, but I hated the lingering. We called an interim, and then had to wait almost another year before Presbytery would clear us to start our mission process and begin the work of discerning our mission and calling our pastor.

Before our prior pastor retired, I’d seen the writing on the wall. (Pro tip: when the pastor who lives in the manse buys a condo in a lovely retirement location, the countdown clock has started.) After over 12 years of constantly serving on a board or two, I took myself off all of them. I didn’t even teach Sunday School. I worshipped, and tried to un-burn myself out, knowing that the afterwards would require a lot of energy and leadership. So when we kicked off the New Beginnings process to help us hear God’s call for us, I threw myself into it, organizing meetings and drafting leaders and setting up small groups.

Towards the end of the year, our interim pastor seemed to start to struggle. He had some personal sorrows in his life that kept him in our prayers and that seemed like a likely culprit. In December, he was uncharacteristically late to start some services. At a funeral of a long time member (much lamented in his loss), long pauses punctuated the eulogy, which seemed unusually sparse in details for a man who had served our congregation so faithfully. Then on Christmas Eve, after the children had told the age-old story of a star and angels and shepherds, the meditation was very strange. It was filled with extremely long pauses. It left a biblical exegesis behind. And it went on far longer than any Christmas Eve sermon with a congregation full of excited kids ever should. I went to sleep that Christmas Eve night with a cold knot of worry in my stomach. I didn’t know what was right and kind to do, but the service was not one I’d care to repeat. My brother ended up filling in for the pastor at the last minute on epiphany Sunday (note: it’s good planning to always have a spare Presbyterian minister in your attic for just such emergencies).

And then, just as the year was starting, we learned our interim pastor has an aggressive brain tumor. Ah. That explained much. We hold him and his family deep in our prayers, but his work is now fighting that and not leading us.

I’ve soldiered on with the New Beginning process, reckoning to figure things out as we go. But this is also the time of year when our boards change members and the members change roles. Some of the lay leadership roles in the church are switching. An interim period is supposed to teach you the strength of your congregation, and it certainly has. This last Sunday, with a guest preacher in the pulpit, we stood to sing “All Things Bright and Beautiful”. On the fourth verse, the organ stopped playing. I figured it was a verse miscount and kept singing, but then… the choir was in motion. One of our older members had collapsed. The notes died on our lips as we called 911. The medical professionals in the congregation (we have a number!) rushed forward. We moved the piano and baptismal font and communion table from the front so the EMTs could bring a stretcher in. The clerk of session rode off with her in a big red ambulance. I watched Grey, sitting next to me, sketching the ambulance on the note pads we keep for the kids. (It seems now that she will be ok.)

At coffee hour we all just looked at each other. We miss our friend who died in December – whose myriad duties we keep discovering. We are shocked and grieved for our interim pastor, and for the dark and difficult road laid out in front of his feet. (And of course, we’re making casseroles, because that’s what we do.) It is a hard time not to have the focusing presence of a pastor.

I’ve been proud at how the congregation has responded. I feel like we’re a patch of woolen cloth. With the heat and pressure and friction of the last few months, the loose weave of our relationships is tightening. We’re coming closer to each other, and bonding together. I think that without the clarity of “who should I ask if I should do this” we’re starting to just do the things that need doing. We are a hopeful people. We want to look forward. We do not wish to stop doing things until we get a pastor to do them for us. I want to make sure we hand out the Bibles to the fourth graders. I want to invite Camp Wilmot to come speak to us. So I will just do those things. We are also leaning forward into the New Beginnings process. It’s not a perfect fit for us. We’re a regional, denominational church, and it’s a community based curriculum. I couldn’t imagine a scenario where I could get people to come six times for small group meetings – we condensed to three or four. The curriculum uses these old techniques for running meetings that I don’t know how to do (mostly handouts and paper documents). I’ve converted them as we’ve gone to presentations. (Chromecast turns my tv into a great display for that!) I had this cold-water realization the other day that while I know what we’re supposed to do in the next step or two of the New Beginnings process, I don’t really know how it all ties in to the Pastor Nominating Committee etc. That was all pastor-guided. (Fortunately we have Presbytery resources to help there.)

It has been the sort of time where, when you are through it, you look back and see how it strengthened you. When you are in it, you wonder how much more room there is in the strength and resources of the congregation to deal with more blows.

All this has been very much on my mind, for several months now. The future of the church – both our specific congregation and the larger collection of worshippers – is in great flux. We must change to meet the need where it is. Waiting for it to come and meet what we are already doing is not a winning strategy.

It’s been a hard year for my friends, too. One friend’s husband was in a serious car accident. Another friend’s brother just died, and left a devastated family behind. They are not my personal sorrows, but I share them with my friends.

And then, back to the prosaic, our hot water heater went out Saturday morning. And the new water heater we had installed at great expense on Sunday (which is not as nice as the one we had before) will not keep its pilot light lit. Good times. I abandoned my husband to that particular domestic disaster.

So that’s what’s up with me. What’s up with you?

Being Church

I was invited to give the sermon in church this week, as part of our planning and discernment to figure out where our church is going next. I’ve had a lot of thoughts banging around in my head regarding the future of the church, and this is where I landed this week. If you’re after the full experience, here are my scripture & hymn choices too.

NT Lesson: Matthew 18:15-20
NT Lesson 2: Acts 17:22-28

Hymn 1: An Upper Room Did our Lord Prepare
Hymn 2: Come Sing, O Church, in Joy!
Hymn 3: Today We All Are Called to Be Disciples

Jesus started his ministry hip deep in a river. Over the course of his ministry, Jesus taught from temples once or twice. But he mostly preached and worshipped from fields and hilltops, from lakeshores and from the remote mountains. He gave us the Beatitudes sitting on a boat just offshore so that throngs gathered could hear on the beach. You remember the story of the paralytic lowered through the roof of someone’s house. I always felt bad for the homeowner with the hole his roof after that miracle was done. Many of his miracles took place as he walked from place to place, like the healing of the woman who was bleeding. At the end of his ministry, when Jesus gave communion to his disciples that Maundy Thursday, it wasn’t in the temple. Communion started over dinner in a believer’s upstairs spare room. When Jesus went to pray before his betrayal by Judas, he prayed outside in a garden.

The earliest building that we know was dedicated specifically to Christian worship is a house in Dura Europos – an ancient abandoned town in Syria preserved in its third century form by sand and rubble. That first church building was in use in approximately 240 AD – just over 200 years after Jesus’ death and resurrection.

So why, when we talk of the church, do we talk about a building? What exactly is the church?

The first gospel lesson we read today, from Matthew 18, is the only time in all the Gospels Jesus uses a word we would translate to mean church. I asked my pastor brother to help me out with the original Greek in this passage. Where we use the word church, the gospel writer used the word “Ecclesia”. The word means a collection of people, those “called out” – just as Jesus called the disciples. It could also be called a convocation, or congregation. In this passage in Matthew, the church – that gathering of faithful people – listens. And the church speaks back to the Christian. Buildings and organizations don’t speak – people do. Jesus promises in this passage that the barrier for the Holy Spirit to be with God’s people is a very low one. “For where two or three come together in my name; there am I with them.”

I have worshiped with you – my beloved friends – for fifteen years. When I first sat in that pew over there, I was 21 years old and had married for two weeks. We have been together through my entire adult life. It was in this building that I heard you vow to nurture both my sons in God’s love – and you have. I was with you when we went through those sorrowful days when Vicki and Whitey were laid to rest and we sang “Lord of the Dance” through our tears. We’ve eaten countless meals together, and dressed up in our favorite ‘60s outfits. We’ve carved pumpkins and enjoyed coffee hours. I love watching your familiar faces around the circle of communion twice a year. We’ve inscribed crosses of ash on each other’s foreheads in the dark night of Ash Wednesday. You’ve inspired me with a generosity of spirit that is willing to give a kidney or a liver to a brother or sister in Christ. One of the greatest strengths of this church, and we do many things well, is how deeply and sincerely we love each other. And in case you didn’t know it, I love you.

So… when I think about the possibility that this church change, or be different, it’s really hard to imagine. I don’t really want the church I love to change. But when I think about what the future holds, I don’t think we honor God’s calling to us by staying the same. When we kicked off the Mission Study Taskforce, I asked my fellow teammates to think about what the church would be like – not in five years, but in fifty. The world today is very different than it was in the ‘60s when we were founded. And I think that in fifty years, it will be even more profoundly different. When I’m sitting in my rocking chair, and my grandchildren are graduating from college, what will the church look like then? What are the cores of what it is to be a church together that the Spirit will continue to inspire? What of what we do now may fall away as unnecessary?

I’ve thought a lot about what it is I come to church to find – what it is that keeps me getting up on Sunday mornings when I’d rather sleep in. I’ve come up with four things that define the role of the church for me. Your keys might be different, and in the coming weeks I’d love to hear your thoughts.

My four pillars of what I look to the church for are community, worship, teaching and sacraments.

Community is what I’ve been talking about – the way that we love and support each other. Honestly, I think we do a wonderful job of this.

We worship right now. I feel like worship is both a strength and a challenge for us. I’ve heard our sisters and brothers from Ghana talk about how much they love the familiarity of this most-Presbyterian service. I’ve always loved the old hymns and prayers. But how many people miss our worship because they’re teaching Sunday School, are setting up coffee hour, or have outside commitments on Sunday mornings? It’s easy to lose the spirit of worship in the busy tumult of a Sunday morning. It can be hard to keep worship as uplifting and God-focused as we might want when we also need this time to talk about our announcements and handle the business of our church. I miss most of the worship this congregation does together, because I’m teaching our children. I really feel that lack in my life.

But that teaching is such an important part of what our church offers that we can’t do on our own. We teach now, during the sermon. We teach our children during Sunday School. We teach in adult Bible study, and in our Thursday morning women’s group. The teaching is why we have specialists, Teaching Elders like Pastor Mike and my brother, who spend three years in seminary learning what the original Greek of Ecclesia means, and how theologians have interpreted it, along with many other things. The depth and breadth of that learning is one of the things I find most valuable about the Presbyterian Church.

Finally, we have those most sacred moments. There are the weddings and funerals we have been a part of here. There are the baptisms and confirmations. There is that meal that we share of Christ’s body and blood. Perhaps my favorite are the ordinations – with the Pentecost red and laying on of hands.

Those are the four things I look to the church for: community, worship, teaching and sacraments.

Now for the scary part, and I admit I’m nervous talking about this… I find myself really tired by all the things that need to be done to keep this church in business. Our church is funded by donations and run by volunteers. Our expenses are about $180 thousand dollars. We need one full time and two part time staff. We spend thousands of dollars on snow plowing alone. The electricity bill for this building is appalling.

We have three primary boards (session, deacons and trustees), with a total of 25 people, that meet at least once a month for several hours to figure out how to meet the needs of the church. Then there are about seven secondary committees, such as Christian Education, Hospitality and Worship, that carry a heavy workload of organization, planning, and leading. There are Sunday School teachers and choir members. For a Christian, especially for those with a family and job, who called by the Spirit to the church by the time the tithe is given and the church work is done, there can be little money and time left over to do the mission and outreach work God calls us to do. I have the deepest gratitude and admiration for those who work with People Helping People or the Food Bank.

When I think about what Jesus calls us to do, I come back time and again to Matthew 25: 31-46. Jesus says “I was hungry, and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in. I was naked, and you clothed me. I was sick and you looked after me. I was in prison, and you came to visit me.” I judge myself by those things, and honestly – I don’t do a very good job. But so much of the time and money of the faithful members of this church are given to the church, it can be hard to find more to feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, welcome the stranger, clothe the naked, look after the sick and visit the prisoners. To put it very bluntly, does God call me more to serve on session, or find a volunteer opportunity at a food bank? Which one does God want me to donate to more, the needs of this church, or the needs of Syrian refugees? As a church, we’ve always tried to make sure 10% of our budget was directed to mission, but that can get harder and harder if our expenses are greater than our donations. I’m not suggesting that as a church we sell everything we have and give it to the poor.

But the radical question I find myself asking is… is there a way for us to serve those core functions of the church while turning our money and volunteering energy to those tasks Jesus calls us to in Matthew 25? How many of those four pillars I outlined require us to meet the way we do now, in this big old building. Can we be a community without this particular space? Is it possible for us to worship, keeping all the things that make worship precious, in any ways that keep worship special and include everyone? What if we didn’t have as many chores to do in order to keep our church running? Are there ways that we can teach and be taught that are different than the traditional Sunday School template? We’ve already lost many of the most sacred moments. When is the last wedding you attended in this church? I’ve been to exactly one. Do those sacred moments need all infrastructure the last generation so generously gave to us?

I do not have the answers to these questions. They’re big ones. I’ve been thinking about them for months, and I still find them scary to contemplate. I’m not sure anyone knows the answers to these questions. I’m not even 100% sure they’re all the right questions. But I do know these things:

I know that the future will be different than the past. We Christians need to be different too if we want to bring the Good News of the Gospel to people where they are. We need to share God with people who are not interested in a Sunday morning worship service, and who think that Christianity doesn’t want or welcome them.

I know that our church, Burlington Presbyterian, is at a new moment in its life. We are at a wonderful time to start asking these questions about how and what God really wants us to be together.

Finally, I know that the Holy Spirit is with us. The church – that collection of God’s summoned people – is at no risk of being lost. This is an opportunity, not a threat. We may be transformed, but we cannot be destroyed as long as the Holy Spirit is present with us. And the Holy Spirit will be with us wherever two or more of us are gathered in God’s name.

In the next few months, we’ll be asking you to come together in small groups to talk about some of these questions. I know as well as anyone that it’s hard to find the time and energy for extra church meetings. But I’m asking you to start thinking and praying now. What do you long for from this community of God? What is God asking us to do? What seeds can we plant now that will help the church flourish and grow both now, and in the next generation? Let us pray, work and plan together to hear God’s intention for us.


Edit: I’m lucky enough that the sermon was recorded. If you’d like to hear my slight divergences from script, or prefer listening to reading, this is your big chance!

The end and the beginning

Settle down and get comfortable – this is a long tale.

Rod, ready for Easter a few years ago
Rod, ready for Easter a few years ago

I usually give something up for Lent that I’ll really miss and look forward to getting back on Easter. For a middle Protestant with no tradition of Lenten giving-up, that seems like a neat part of the tradition. It reinforces the hard waiting and the joyful return. (Although after the year I gave up coffee, Adam asked me never to do THAT again. I had to agree. There’s hard and there’s almost missing your tax return date because you can’t fathom doing taxes without coffee to help you.)

At a graduation party for a dear friend.
At a graduation party for a dear friend.

This year, though, I approach Easter with both joyful anticipation and great reluctance.

You see, the week AFTER Easter will be the last week that my pastor will be my pastor. Rod, and his lovely wife, have been a more-than-weekly part of my life since the day I became an adult. With my history, I more or less know what month that happened. In August of 2000 – two months after I graduated – I married Adam. I was 21. He brought me home to a lovely, sunlit apartment in Roslindale that I had not seen before I crossed its threshold with the 23 year old I’d only had a few hours to call “husband”. We only spent a few hours in the apartment before we took a flight out of Logan to Greece, where we’d honeymoon. When we returned on a Saturday a week or so later, we were tired. Now I am Presbyterian. I was born in the mission field to missionary Presbyterian parents. I was baptized in a Presbyterian Church by a fire-speaking pastor on an equitorial Sunday. I have attended Presbyterian Churches my whole life. My summer camps that weren’t orchestral were Presbyterian. My sister, brother, mother, father and I are all ordained Presbyterian elders/deacons (actually I’m the only one)/ministers. So while I was LITERALLY in the honeymoon phase of my marriage, I wanted to start the married habit of attending church with my beloved new husband. And I wanted a Presbyterian church. But they are few and hard to find in New England, so that groggy Sunday after we landed I took the path of least resistance and we went to the Presbyterian Church 20 miles away that had been near Adam’s LAST apartment.

A much younger Rod & Brenda on a Spring day more than 10 years ago.
A much younger Rod & Brenda on a Spring day more than 10 years ago.

I settled into the pews, fresh in my matronness and ring sparkly on my left finger, and the sermon was GOOD. And we were warmly welcomed. And there was a coffee hour in the finest of Presbyterian traditions. And it felt very right. And so the next week I also forgot to look up a closer church. And the week after.

We have attended that church through three different houses in three different towns. We have taught Sunday School and confirmation there. We have baptized our sons there. We have made life-long friends. We have taken solemn vows to love and teach the vibrant rainbow-line of squirmy children on the stairs at word for children. We have buried friends, and comforted the grieving. It is our church, our home, our family.

At Grey's baptism
At Grey’s baptism

For the fourteen years that span my adult life, there has been one person standing in that pulpit – Rod. That pulpit-relationship is where it begins, of course. Rod is one of the finest preachers I have had the chance to listen to. (And remember, I have attended services every week of my life.) He finds that difficult line between offering a challenge that makes me think differently, and sometimes change how I behave, but without go so far to challenge that in fear or recoil I stop listening. His sermons are academic enough to keep me interested, but relevant enough to speak to my heart as well as my mind.

This might be my favorite picture of Rod. Apparently that t-shirt is an original.
This might be my favorite picture of Rod. Apparently that t-shirt is an original.

But the relationship – the friendship – goes far past the pulpit. Rod, his wife (who prefers her privacy) and I have shared dinner together. We’ve played music together. (He plays a mean piano – you should try to lure it out of him.) We’ve caroled together and sung rousing renditions of “Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer” to folks whose illness or debility means they have trouble leaving their homes. We’ve done skits together. We’ve attended countless committee meetings. We’ve sung hymns through late nights in long Presbytery meetings which have decided small steps in the question of whether the Presbyterian Church would be one that welcomes all people.

When the time came for me to give birth to my second child, Adam and I were in a bind. We have no family in New England. Michael was terribly sick with the lingering aftereffects of cancer – he would die only a few months later – and Laureen could not come to us. My parents were working and tied down in Seattle. We were only just coming to know our neighbors. Who would stay with Grey while I delivered our second son? A friend got the first call and overnight shift, but on the second shift, we called Rod. He came and stayed with Grey – a familiar and friendly presence. He even did the dishes. With both my sons, he was the first to come and visit the new life in the hospital room. Friends who saw the pictures asked, “Is that your dad?” No, it’s my pastor.

Rod with a new-born Thane, only hours old.
Rod with a new-born Thane, only hours old.

So as I count up to Easter, with joy, I also count down to farewell, with very mixed feelings. I will miss Rod and his wife very, very much. In our church, when a pastor leaves, it is a real leave-taking. He will never lead another service from that pulpit, or chair another committee meeting. They are moving – not so far away that we’ll NEVER see them, but far enough that it will be rare.

On Maundy Thursday, Thane took communion with us for the first time. I finagled it so I could kneel before him to serve it. But then I also served Rod, who had blessed our cup and our bread. Then he turned and served me. And I was breathless with tears at the sacrament – a first and a last so close together.

Rod at word for children
Rod at word for children

Rod and his wife go forward to a new stage of their lives. I have told them that I’m a little jealous. They have finished with the stages of “should” and “ought” and “supposed to” and “had better”. They are now in the only stage of life where your labors are determined by what you would do, what you are called to do, what you want to do – and what you can do. A part of me feels like a parent with a graduating high school senior. I send them away from me and will miss them horribly, but would not wish them back to their old roles. The time for moving on is here.

So, Rod and Cathy, go into the world in peace and continue the service. What does our God ask of us but to do justice, love kindness and walk humbly with our God? May the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ and the love of God and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with us all: today, tomorrow and always.

Benediction
Benediction

For any who have also loved Rod, we’ll be giving him a rousing BPC farewell with a huge International Dinner at 6 pm on Saturday, April 26 2014. The next day, Sunday April 27th, will be his final service with us and will be followed by a massive coffee hour I’m hosting. So come.

Our Lady of Good Voyage

Between me and the sea

I work in Boston’s “Innovation District” – an area once known for cheap parking and crime that is now sprouting office buildings like mushrooms on a rotted log after a rainy spell. I was drawn off my (hip, brick-lined) street today by a mobile blood drive across from the Courthouse. For the first day in forever (months at least) it was warm today. The receding glaciers left moraines of gravel across parking lots, revealing spaces long since lost to history along with cigarette butts, lost mittens and Dunkin’ cups. With the gleaming high-rises of the financial district to my left and the persistent pounding of construction cranes to my right, I crossed to the Courthouse.

When I got to the blood-van, however, a sign on the door indicated that they’d taken lunch early and they’d be back later. The breeze felt warm instead of wicked. I took the longer way back. With the shiny new Vertex Pharmaceutical building – newly occupied reaching out across Fan Pier – to my left, I turned my eyes to what looks from behind like one more forgotten brick warehouse, destined to eventually become a hip office space.

It was no warehouse, but instead it was a time capsule.

You can smell the sea from where I stood, corralled and calm as it is in Boston Harbor. The land grows to claim the sea more every day. That Mary once gazed across waves. Now she gazes at a gleaming lobby full of Important People. Behind her are hid the detritus and debris of a liminal space caught between three ages.

I had the strange feeling that I was the only one who could see the traffic cones and signs hidden behind the outstretched hands of the Mother of God.

Now, I’ve seen this chapel before. But I’ve never gone in. A tentative Calvinist, I sauntered up to the front door, hoping I looked like a tourist. A sign said, “Open 8 am to 8 pm during Lent”. Yes. It is Lent. I stepped in. No one waited there. There was no sound, no lock, no bar. A single lone candle flickered in the votives. I thought of the great Catholic cathedrals I had seen during my European travels – whole walls given to the glimmering lights that each represented a prayer. Only a handful of votives even had candles to be lit. An optimistic sign said, “Donation $1”. When I lifted the placard to place my small offering in it, only two quarters told the tale of a desperate prayer. No sons or brothers must be on the sea today. No wives worried their unborn babes will never know a father’s voice. No sisters left behind in this chapel by the sea.

For the safety of those upon the sea

Heretic that I am, it is Lent. I walked up the center aisle of the lonely chapel. The pews were cold and worn, with discarded programs and handouts. The tile peeled away at the corners. Cobwebs hung at the edge of stained-glass windows with pictures of dark apostles striving to calm the waves. One window had been removed to make way for an ancient box air conditioner. This place would be hot in summer. In the front of the church was placed a reading for the day, from Isaiah:

“For, as the rain and the snow come down from the sky and do not return before having watered the earth, fertilising it and making it germinate to provide seed for the sower and food to eat, so it is with the word that goes from my mouth: it will not return to me unfulfilled or before having carried out my good pleasure and having achieved what it was sent to do.”

I stopped to pray in a sunbeam, then left. I noted as I left the rusting bars over the windows of the rectory. Once, this place had been a home to desperate prayers for safety as tall ships raced before winds across the unknowable oceans. Then it had been a bastion of God in a dismal and dingy strip of garbage-filled land – a beacon of light against darkness. Now it was left behind and valued only as a relic of historical interest and sentimental value. Where the door had once borne the name of a man of God who served there, that name is covered with black tape and replaced with a ten digit phone number. How long, oh Lord, before this too becomes a bistro that “seeks to foster collaboration and entrepreneurship for the business leaders of tomorrow”?

Gleaming skyscrapers, union trucks and rusted bars on windows. This is Boston.

I wondered if this church might be a metaphor for The Church. From central importance to struggle to irrelevancy in 100 years. Is that the story of the 21st century Christian? Is our service spent? Does our tile peel? Do spiders add their artistry to our historic stained glass windows? Is our piano out of tune? Do our candles go unlit, our hymns go unsung and our prayers go unattended? Do we matter anymore?

That there is Good Friday. The guttering candles and the fading hope. I do not believe that the people in the tall buildings that hem in the chapel need God any less than the fervently praying betrothed once did as her lover pushed off the dock. Faithful hands laid out the scriptures to be read. Faithful hands opened the door and say the mass. I think we have not yet found our idiom – our way of telling our need to God and hearing a loving response. We do not light candles. But we do hope that the whispers of our heart are heard.

I do not know what the Easter of service to God will look like in our generation. Perhaps this Easter Eve will be grim and long – the active persecution of the apostles replaced with the corrosive disdain that marks so many of our public conversations. Perhaps it will flourish and be full of the creativity and joy and expression that mark our generation. Perhaps it will be profoundly individualistic. Perhaps we will so miss being with each other in our profound individualism that we will collaborate and innovate together in service to God and to man and to creation. It is even possible that the denizens of those high towers will find themselves drawn to a sunlit pew on a Tuesday noon to light a candle and say a prayer.

We gather together to ask the Lord’s blessing

Sing to the Lord a new song

My husband and I started attending Burlington Presbyterian Church the Sunday after we got back from our honeymoon, back in 2000. We were members by that winter, and I think my husband got conscripted to session, er, nominated to the high honor of monthly meetings within a year. (I ended up serving on Deacons.) Since then, we’ve gone pretty much every Sunday that we weren’t travelling, with a very few sleeping-in exceptions. The only other church we ever go to is the church I grew up in, when we visit my parents.

I love my church. I love the people. I love the pastor. I’ve been to the baptism of most of the cute kids on the front steps during Word for Children. Coffee hour ranges between good and excellent on a consistent basis.

But this last weekend, my brother was preaching at the church he’s interning at: Fourth Presbyterian in Dorchester. So we upended our familiar Sunday routine and took 93 south through the city to watch him.

What an interesting experience. I hadn’t realized how used I was to the way we do things. For example, the order of worship was different. They do all their announcements and prayers and concerns in the beginning. I actually really liked that — once the worship part started it was all worship. The music was great — they did interstices between parts of the service, and even played quietly during some of the prayers and readings. They did a fantastic job of integrating their children into their service. And the preacher was great too. (Heh.)

I also really liked the feeling of connectedness. One of the big reasons to be Presbyterian, instead of something else, is that we are tied through a connection and community to each other. Fourth and Burlington belong to the same Presbytery. I’d met several of the people at previous Presbytery meetings — in fact our September meeting will be held there. I felt a bit like an ambassador between two distant colonies of the same home country. It was all familiar but distinctly different, as well. And I felt just a touch of that church universal to which we aspire.

I love my church dearly. I have no desire to worship somewhere else week in and week out. But this makes me wonder if it might not be a blessing to me and to my service to BPC to periodically see how it’s done other places, and come back with new ideas and energy. I also think it is a joy to create connections between the communities. Matthew’s sermon was on the strength that we gain from working together, instead of alone. He’s right. That goes for churches as well as people.

My friends and family at BPC
My friends and family at BPC

Fear

My church has something called the prayer chain. This is not uncommon in medium sized churches, I think. Basically, someone has a need for prayer (sickness, accident etc.) and the Deacons spring to life. Each Deacon gets called, and they all have a list of church members they’re supposed to call and notify. Then we all commence with praying for the person in question. Prayer chain calls are often sad (although there are new babies in there!), and usually things like “person so and so has fallen on the ice and broken their hip, please pray for them”.

Today in Costco I got a call that a member of my church — and a friend of mine — is in the ICU with suspected meningitis. He’s ventilated and sedated, because he was delirious. He was on church on Sunday and feeling fine. In fact, they gave us a box of outgrown diapers on Sunday. Their daughter was at Grey’s third birthday party. Their second daughter is just a couple weeks older than Thane.

I am praying as hard as I can that he recovers quickly and well. But meningitis is terrifying. One day you’re healthy. Then you’re not. It can kill even perfectly healthy people. You can’t do much to prepare against it (other than be vaccinated — my quick research shows that there are lots of different ways you can get meningitis; some of them have vaccines available and some don’t). I cannot imagine what it would be like to lose him. But then I immediately jump to my own family. The parallels are simply too close. I am not afraid of dying for my sake. I am terrified of dying for my family’s. I am still needed here. And I cannot bear the thought of losing one of my boys – big or small. I’m nearly breathless with sympathetic fear. (And I keep turning my neck around to see if it feels stiff.)

I wish there was lots I’ve offered. I have offered to take the girls (since they’re my boys age, I’m well set up for them) but I can’t imagine that will happen since their family has made it in. I’ve offered my stored milk in case they’re having trouble feeding the youngest with the tumult (not likely, but I’m about the only person in a position to make that particular offer). I offer up my prayers.

But man. Merry Christmas.