My tiny, rural home county of Lewis County (approx the size of Connecticut with approx the population of Somerville MA) made the national news this week. The Governor of Washington has made masks mandatory to attempt to slow or stop the crashing wave of Coronavirus infections. In response to this legal edict, the Sheriff (you know, the hand of the law) for the county got on a bullhorn (maskless) and advised people that the choice of whether to follow the law was theirs. His exact words, repeated more than once, were “Don’t be a sheep”.
As someone who loves people in Lewis County, and worries about their safety and well being, I have a lot of thoughts about this medically, socially etc. But the thing that really struck me was how profoundly un-Christian this advice is.
You see, throughout the Bible – and especially Jesus’ words – he over and over again talks about his people as sheep. There are incredibly clear stories that came immediately to mind, putting God’s beloved in the role of sheep. The first is, of course, the parable of the Wandering Sheep (Matthew 18:10-14) “If a man owns a hundred sheep … In the same way your Father in heaven is not willing that any of these little ones should perish.”
Of course, we have Jesus as the Good Shepherd (John 10) “The one who enters by the gate is the shepherd of the sheep. … Very truly I tell you, I am the gate for the sheep. … I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.”
If you’re Catholic, you should care a lot about being a sheep, because of John 21:15 when Jesus, THREE TIMES, asks Peter for one thing, “Again Jesus said, “Simon son of John, do you love me? He answered, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.” Jesus said, “Take care of my sheep.” This is part of the story that establishes Peter (Simon = Peter if you’re confused) as the Pope. The Pope to this day carries a stylized shepherd’s crook.
The last story comes as a warning (Matthew 25:31-46). Jesus has just explained that in the end, we will be judged on whether we have fed the hungry, given water to the thirsty, clothed the naked, welcomed the stranger and visited the prisoner. (I often wonder why religious rights folks haven’t been fighting restrictions against prison visits harder – or at all – for infringing their religious duties). But the end is an apocalyptic scene, where at the judgement day …
“All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. He will put the sheep on his right hand and the goats on his left. Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come you who are blessed by my Father, take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. … Then he will say to those on his left, “Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.”
So take a longer thought. If you are a Christian, should you want to be a sheep? Or should you fight against being a sheep? Will you be led, and guided, by the law, medicine and the need to care for others? Or would you rather be an individualistic goat, wandering in your own free, will not caring who you harm? And if the latter – how do you square that with being a Christian?
I blogged for a long time before I switched to WordPress. I did an incomplete job of moving my writing from one platform (Livejournal) to another – partially because it was very manual. But a friend asked about my beliefs regarding the soul the other day, and I was reminded of this sermon I gave. I was surprised, checking the archives, that this one fell in the gap between platforms. Rereading it, I feel like it stands the test of time. This was originally published on 7/17/2007 after the first of two miscarriages, and before my second son was successfully brought into this world.
The Book of Job is a story about people trying to understand God’s actions. In the story, the righteous man Job has horrible things happen to him for reasons he doesn’t understand. His friends spend several chapters claiming that they understand how God works, and that Job’s bad luck must be his own fault. Job complains to God, asking why he had such a tough time of it. God never answers that question for Job. Instead, God’s reply (in some of the most beautiful and poetic language that can be found anywhere in the Bible) is to talk about all the things that God understands, has done, and had witnessed that are far beyond Job’s ability to comprehend. Finally, Job accepts that while he might not understand why he was so miserable now, it was ok not to understand as long as his relationship with God was intact.
There is a lot to talk about in the story of Job. Right now I want to point out that it is possible for good people to misunderstand God’s nature, and believe the wrong thing about him.
Christianity has spent a lot of time and energy trying to decide what we believe about God’s nature. Some of the most divisive questions in the Christian church have been about that: Is Jesus both fully human and fully divine? What is the trinity? Is it three different people, or three aspects of the same person?
Belief is important. It can change how we act and what we try to do. If we believe that Jesus died and gave us grace for our sins, we act in hope and try to encourage others to do likewise, instead of falling into the inaction of despair.
But how we believe doesn’t actually change the nature of God. Job’s friends truly and sincerely believed that God was punishing Job for some sin Job had committed. God wasn’t – he had another reason. The conviction of Job’s friends didn’t change God’s nature.
Why is that important?
Sometimes I think that we’ve fallen into the habit of thinking that what we believe makes it true. This is easy to observe in a toddler, and fortunately I have one handy to watch. Grey is convinced that if he says that we are outside at the park often enough, then we actually will be outside at the park. A child can think that believing something makes it true. Adults fall into this sort of trap in much subtler ways. (Author’s note: I didn’t say, but one could argue a certain president of ours is doing this by claiming we’re winning in Iraq.) In some theological questions, where the Bible might not have much to say and there’s no way for us to test to find the answer, perhaps we can be forgiven for thinking that whatever we decide is true is actually true.
But God’s true nature doesn’t change based on what we think, and for that I am grateful.
Well, what happens when we don’t know what to think?
Most of you know I recently had a miscarriage. I’m hardly unique in this. I was stunned at how many of my sisters in these pews had gone through one or even many miscarriages. (Author’s note: I got three more miscarriage stories after this sermon.) Anyway, in the course of my recovery from this, one of the questions I was asked was whether I had any theological doubts or uncertainties that had been raised by the miscarriage.
There are certainly lots of questions to which I do not know the answer. When does a pregnancy turn into a person with a soul? Was my pregnancy even at that stage? What happens to the souls of children who are never born, if they have souls? When does a person accumulate enough actions and intentions to be judged and forgiven by God? For that matter, just what is heaven really like? On some of these issues, such as the miscarriages, the Bible is nearly silent. On others, such as what heaven is like, it is very mysterious and hard to translate to a concrete vision.
So when I look at my own experience and wonder: was there a child, and if so, what happened to them? It’s a question to which I will never have a concrete answer on this side of salvation. I don’t even know what I believe.
And that’s when I realized the beauty of the unchanging nature of God. I don’t HAVE to know what happened, in order for the right thing to have occurred. This possible child isn’t waiting in some limbo, pending me making up my mind as to what God does with early miscarriages. God has already acted, and if there was a baby with a soul, it is in God’s loving hands. I do not need understand, agree, believe, or consent for God to fulfill his covenant and relationship with this other person. I do not need to understand for the right and proper thing to have happened.
That raises another uncomfortable question, though. What if I don’t like what happened? What if it was something bad instead of something good?
I am at peace there, too, because I have faith. That’s where our other Bible story of the day comes into play. The disciples are in a tight spot, with a boat that may at any moment break apart and drown them all. Jesus is sleeping through what they fear might be his last moments alive. They wake him up. “Hey!” they say. “Don’t you care that we’re all about to die!” I imagine that they’re not saying he should do something, they’re waking him up to tell him to prepare himself for the worst. What can anyone do in the middle of the sea, in a horrible storm? I mean, there are miracles of returning sight to people with milky eyes, and then there’s commanding the very weather to act unnaturally. Doctors can return sight or it might come back on it’s own, but no one can command the weather. But Jesus does, and he comments on their lack of faith.
Well, I do have faith. I believe that God is good, and kind, and loving. If there was a soul in place, I believe that he holds my unborn child in his hands and has carried that child to a good end. I trust in that not only for this Schroedinger’s baby, who may or may not have ever existed as a person, but I also trust it for myself. I believe, in the end, that God loves us and cares for us. And so, when theology goes dark and God’s plan is unknown and unknowable, and we do not know what the right thing is to believe, then have faith friends. For we do know that God is good, and his steadfast love for us endures forever.
This post is best read while listening to “Sweet Hour of Prayer” by Anonymous 4. Their whole “American Angels” album is worth a listen for those to whom this post will resonate.
I always liked to joke that I am an “Born the first time around” Christian. I was a missionary baby born in the hospital my father helped run in the Congo. My earliest days were a compassionate example, as my mother visibly nursed me to show that this healthy & cheap option was good for any child. I was baptized by Pastor Kafiamba – fire-eater. My first memory of music were the songs of Maranatha when I was three. And I have never fallen away from church, from my faith, from my God. Even in college, the notorious time of not-going-to-church, I was one of a faithful handful who attended Sunday and Wednesday services, huddling in a tiny corner of the vast and magnificent Harkness Chapel.
My good-church-person resume is extensive. I’ve been a member of the Presbyterian Church in Burlington for nearly 20 years. I’m on session. I am a Sunday School teacher. I run the website. I have served on almost every committee a person can serve on. I show up on Sundays, and sometimes Tuesdays. I ran the process to listen to what mission God calls us to, and led the search for our new pastor. I run the Christmas pageant, play trumpet, serve communion, bring coffee hour treats, and can walk through the halls in total dark without stumbling.
But lately, it’s been harder and harder to reach that font of living water, and I have felt my soul getting parched. I suspect some of this has to do with age. Nothing feels quite as vivid or fresh or spooky-special at 40+ as it did when I was 19. Repeated experiences, like sitting in the pew on a Sunday morning, can either gradually add to or gradually wear away at meaning. Or sometimes, both. But in the last decade or so, as my labors have increased, my deep connection to the “why” of those labors has started to wear thin. Simply put – my heart has been growing hungrier, even as I do the things I’ve always done to feed it.
When I think of my mother’s parents, their deep faith and devotion are a huge part of what I remember. They had two chairs in the living room, with a big bookcase on one side. One for her, and one for him. And every day, often in the quiet cool of the morning, they would sit in those chairs with their well-loved Bibles and pray and read. Both those Bibles are still in their hands, in the cool quiet of their shared tomb – a fact I often reflect on. But this time of prayer was central to their lives, if always a little foreign to me (and hard to stay quiet for, when I was wee).
In this desert-time in my spiritual journey, I’m looking hard for things that fill my cup, and inspire me. I’m looking for things that make me feel big feelings, and have a heart overspilling with unnameable emotion. I’m looking to have mind and heart and soul be more expansive, and to see a world that is grander and more mysterious than the narrow boundaries of my life. And so, into the cracks of time my schedule permits, I’m trying plants expansive seeds of soul-dilation.
And that brings me back to the sweet hour of prayer. (OK ok, honestly, sweet fifteen minutes.) I’ve started creating my own sanctuary and litany. My quietest time is morning, after my boys are all already gone to school and work. (I am not a morning person.) I sit on the white chair by the window and look out at the morning and the sky and try the rusty skill of prayer. I’m really not very good at it for someone who’s working on their fifth decade of Being Christian.
Then I sing a hymn. Hymns are my emotional soft spot, especially the old ones (like Sweet Hour of Prayer). Grey accused me of “flexing” in church this morning because I knew all the words to “Praise to the Lord, The Almighty” by heart, and it includes the word “Ye”. The hymns sound strange in the acoustics of my bedroom, with just my voice. But the words connect me to the great cloud of witnesses who have come before me.
Then, if I have time, I read. My goal was to find things that would inspire me when I read them. I read the Book of Matthew first, a little because I had to start somewhere. I’ve probably read Matthew through 10 times? So I wasn’t expecting to find anything new, or surprising there. But that’s the great joy of a book like the Bible. There is so much to it, so much complexity, that you see different thing based on where you are in your own life. Different things stand proud and catch your notice. In this case, for me, it was the theme of being judged by the measure you judge others, and the phrase “I desire mercy, not sacrifice” which showed up several times. It is funny, reading the Bible, to know that there is so little to find that others have not already seen. I bet both of those have PhD theses, if not entire books written on them. But I’d never noticed before.
I’m working on my next book. I listened to “The Reason for God” on my commute, which was particularly fascinating when read alongside Steven Pinker’s “Enlightenment Now“. I tried Bonhoeffer, but despite his excellent quotability he was annoying instead of inspiring me. I’m reading Luke while I figure out what I want to do next.
I’m also mindful that books that have great spiritual resonance for me are not always actually Christian. There is no book more capable of evoking a spirit-response in me than Lois McMaster Bujold’s Curse of Chalion which is written about a religious Pantheon which is distinctly Not Christian. But yet, it makes me feel closer to the creator. I also have come to the conclusion that John Muir is a prophet to *me*, speaking to a very important part of my heart. I think poetry may come close to this soul-expansion I so deeply desire.
The last thing I’m doing is my one faith-fail-safe for my whole life. I feel closest to God when I am in nature. There is a meditative quality to an expansive hike which cracks open my hard shell and lets air and light and water in. It is as though altitude helps me get closer to heaven. The time I spent this summer and fall with hiking boots strapped to my feet was time I spent nurturing the soul-fire God has given me.
With time, prayer, song, poetry and nature – I have hope that embers of my joy in God will rekindle. There’s a heat to someone whose soul is well tended. I remember the soft warming glow of my grandparents, in their quiet devotion. I also know that there is a more blazing, inspiring fire that comes sometimes. I’ve rarely heard a story of someone who converted to Christianity without an encounter they have had with someone who seemed lit by an internal conflagration of joyful spirit. I wish to be such a beacon.
I’m chronically busy and oversubscribed. Like so many in this day and age, I have to fight the tendency to wear my busy-ness like a badge of pride, or a competition. The last week or so I’ve been particularly hard-working. I think a bit of that is a burst of energy from the renewal I got from camping. I now have the capacity to work just a little harder, so I’ve been tackling the small things and the backlogs that drain energy from the every day. Much of my weekend was given to the domestic labors and to do lists that eat at my conscience like a black stone dropped on a field of ice.
Then today was a particularly rigorous day at work. Instead of writing blog posts, I should definitely be catching up on my backlog of unread emails. I had one of those days where you end the day with more unread messages than you start it – not a good feeling. And tomorrow will be more of the same, except capped by a (likely) three hour church board meeting (session, for the Presbyterians among you) in which I will remember that as chair of personnel I should probably, you know, do something.
And Mondays are a hard-working night for me. Adam has aikido, so the kids and I are on our own. There’s dinner to be arranged, recycling to be put out, the house must be prepared for the cleaners (so much less work than doing it yourself, but not no work. I go through the homework with Grey. I also needed to tackle the bills – a chore that has become less frequent with the advent of bill pay, but hardly absent.
As I loaded the dishwasher, I was thinking about one of my undone tasks. Adam and I need to revisit our will. I also need to fill out my care choices and end of life choices. I have strong opinions on my own funeral, which if I want them heeded I should probably write down in a place where my family can find them. The short version is that I’d like to be cremated and buried at the base of a fir in Wellspring’s dreampt of funereal forest – you can only learn more by talking to Sunny during a massage. For my funeral, I’d certainly want the hymn “Abide With Me”. I was contemplating what other hymns I can’t make it through without tearing up and “Come, Labor On” came to mind. (Not sure I’d want it for my funeral, though.)
It’s “a hymn of a certain age” – that age being one of my soft spots. There’s something about those mid-1800s hymns that hits me right in the heart. When I sing them, I feel like the rearguard of a dying era. I wonder if I’m the youngest person to know all the words to these old chestnuts, and love them dearly. At my funeral, will the congregation hearken back to a lovely old hymn none of them had ever heard before, as I did at my grandmother’s? The carillon in our town sing sweetly on the hour (or rather, five minutes before the hour) between 9 am and 9 pm. That bell and I have a lot of hymns in common, and it’s a moment of worship for me in those quiet hours when it makes it to my ears. I checked to see if Google Music had a version of this hymn. They do, but it’s a big choir-and-organ version, lugubrious and hard to hear the words to. I’m not a choir-and-organ Christian. I’m a piano and if we’re lucky one or two voices of harmony Christian. Most hymns I love, I cannot hear “properly” without just singing them myself.
I absolutely, positively cannot make it through this hymn without choking up. The whole hymn is about working. “Who dares stand idle on the harvest plain, while all around us waves the golden grain” and “No arm so weak but may do service here”. So totally Protestant Work Ethic FTW. But then, ah, the last verse. As with so many hymns of this era, the last verse hints to what happens after our labors cease. Here it is in full:
Come, labor on.
No time for rest*, till glows the western sky,
Till the long shadows o’er our pathway lie,
And a glad sound comes with the setting sun,
“Well done, well done!”
I totally teared up just typing that. I’d blame it on fatigue, but it happens every single time I sing this song.
When is the last time someone said to you, “Well done!” When is the last time you believed it when they said it? What would it mean to you if it was the person who’s approval you most sought – the hardest judge of you – who said those words at the end of your labors, and you really believed it? What would it take for you, yourself, looking back at your life at the end of all things, to judge for yourself that your work was “well done”?
I have no answers here, only feelings. There is honor in our hard work. There is much to be done. “Redeem the time; it’s hours too swiftly fly. The night draws nigh.” But make sure that the work you are doing is the work that will earn you at least your own “well done” when the long shadows over your pathway lie.
*We Presbyterians get a lot of sermons about keeping the Sabbath and the value of rest, including this last Sunday’s, all of which we sincerely agree with and completely ignore.
My first church camp was Camp Ghormley*, up on White Pass in Washington State. I went in maybe 1986 with my church youth group. I was young – Thane’s age perhaps. I remember loving the songs around the campfire, the way the bark on the pine trees fit like a puzzle, the deliciousness of a 5c green apple Jolly Rancher, and that our youth director (in one week) fell off the zip line and hit his head (blood everywhere) and slid down the railing of a cabin in tight shorts (extensive and embarrassing splinter removal). His name was Clayton, he had a Texan accent and a funny tick of jerking his head to his shoulder. We tried really hard to keep him out of trouble, but it took more than the combined powers of our Church youth group to work miracles like that.
There are no photos of me at Ghormley. Cameras were expensive. I certainly wouldn’t have given one to a kid to take to camp. So all I have are vague memories and well-memorized camp songs.
In fourth grade, we moved from the town with the big Presbyterian Church (it was PCUSA at the time) and to a town where on some Sundays the folks on the “Great War” honor roll were more plentiful than the folks worshiping in the pews. There wasn’t a youth group (there were four of us though!) but there was still Presbytery church camp. After a break of a year or two, I went to Buck Creek (now defunct, I’m afraid) where I went backpacking for the first time in my life. Even though we got rained out and were poorly kitted, I was totally and completely hooked on backpacking. We slept under the stars, back at the field at Buck Creek, and the Perseids were in full blossom across the sky and I could not shut my eyes. From then on, I took every possible opportunity to do backpacking camp. I loved the backpacking. I loved nature. I loved the songs, and the sense of worship. It’s still one of the most holy things for me.
So when Grey was like in 1st grade I started looking up the Presbyterian Camps in the area. Our church had a relationship with Camp Wilmot, so it was a short search. The very first summer he was old enough, he was signed up. But as I followed circuitous GPS directions into the “parking lot” (eg field area) I was struck by serious doubts. He was so little. He was so clearly uncertain, and nervous. And so was I, I realized. I knew *no one* at this camp. No kids. No grownups. Nothing. I was going to leave my beloved first-born child in the wilderness in the hands of strangers.
I drove away anyway.
Around Thursday I got a letter. It was short – two sentences. They were both dedicated to how amazing Anthony’s BBQ chicken was.
When I picked him up he was tired, happy to see me, and ready to come back again the next year.
The next year, he talked no fewer than four of his friends into coming to camp with him. (I think he’ll do very well in sales, if he chooses, as a career.) Where he’d been alone and afraid the first year, he was in excellent company and confident the second. And he remembered his favorite “camp shirt” as well.
Last year he was ready to do both sessions. He’d originally claimed that he didn’t need to be picked up, but called on Thursday asking for a day at home. They don’t go to bed until like 10 pm there and they’re up at 7, which is a short sleep ration for a kid his age. Also, I think he missed the cats.
This year is going to be the epicalest yet. Today I drove a packed car up to New Hampshire with a wild game of poker in the backseat (Grey: “I packed poker chips!”) and a friend in the front seat. This year he’s going to do a full two weeks. On the second week, his brother will head to camp for HIS first ever sleepaway camp (and Adam and I will be childless! Craziness!) And he and his Camp Wilmot compatriots have been talking about the awesomeness of the camp all year. This year, a total of ELEVEN kids from our town will make the trek up to White’s Pond to experience Anthony’s BBQ chicken.
There are so many incredible and wonderful things summer camp does. It gives us all practice in living without each other. The role of a parent is to raise a child who doesn’t need us. Camp is an excellent experiment in structured self-reliance. No one made Grey change his shirt, but he came home happy and healthy. He packs his own bag. He knows things that we do not know. I think it’s a grievous thing to send a person to independence for the very first time when they are an adult, and there is no safety net. Summer camp is how you practice for college. It’s also a place for children to have deep meaningful thoughts, and begin to stretch the muscles of what *they* believe and what *they* think and what’s important to *them*. Some of my greatest moments of faith happened at summer camp. I can only pray that my sons find the experience meaningful and moving too.
It also plays an important role for we parents. I am more than halfway through the raising of Grey. Thane is only a few years behind him. Who are Adam and I, when we are not coparents? What interests do we share? What bonds have we strengthened? In the week our children are learning to kayak and kyrie, we can also remember the love we have for each other.
It’s hard to walk away from your kid, like I did that first year. It’s hard when your kid walks away from you and doesn’t look back. But it’s good and right that they practice doing just that.
If you’d like to follow along with all the info we get on camp, you can follow “Camp Wilmot’s Facebook page. If you’re suddenly dying to send your kid, you can still register for week 2. And if you happen to have a truck that will pass registration and which you don’t want anymore, that’s a tough capital purchase for a scrappy summer camp. They’d be incredibly grateful for the donation!
* If I’d known about this at the time, my campfire ghost stories would’ve been epic! “But upon his sudden death in 1948 (he was stricken fatally ill at the camp as he was preparing to begin a week of camp for children) members of the church moved to have the camp named after him.”
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!
I had an “ah ha” moment recently. For anyone who is actively involved in the life of a church, there is tons to worry about. We worry about the budget for the fiscal year. (Like all not-for-profits, churches have been enormously hit by the collision of rising needs, and dropping contributions from families who have lost jobs. Unlike many not-for-profits, an alarming number of our members have fled the incredibly expensive metropolis to live in less expensive places, or to chase jobs elsewhere.) And then there are the larger problems of a conscientious Christian. The “bright” movement (a movement of atheists) claims by contrast that Christians are either dull or not so smart — or maybe both. And the extremist hateful Christians that seem to get all the press do nothing to dissuade anyone from this view. Our world is secularizing. Across oceans, rabid and destructive types of religions are rising like bread left too near the oven — getting sour and overflowing the bowl, while losing the qualities that make bread sustaining.
We look at our youth group. We lose them at about 16. They fade away… can’t be coerced or coaxed into something as uncool as church.
And as a Christian, I get this sort of desperate energy. I have to do something. I have to be a youth leader. I have to be an apologist (in the very oldest sense of the word) to help my faith make sense to a world that thinks it understands it, and doesn’t. I have to frenetically work to preserve the church.
And here comes my “ah ha”.
Secretly, in a part of my mind, I had the thought that I need to frenetically work to preserve God. What a 20th century, faithless American thought that is. If I really believe what I think I believe, that at least I can stop worrying about. If my faith is in a God who exists seperate of me and my beliefs — of a God so powerful that he created the universe and so loving that he sustains it — then there is no way the current waning of compassionate religiousity is a threat to God. Now, it may be a threat to many other things — the institutions of the church, the country (I do NOT want a theocracy to take root in America, because I sincerely doubt it will have room for me!), civil discourse, the needy… these are all things that I should work for. But if my faith is sincere, I do not need to fret about the possibility of God disappearing from my life, and from this world. And if I really believe what I think I believe, I can also have confidence that God will be present in the world as well — calling people to compassion and kindness, as well as to confidence in him. We humans are not in this alone.
And you know, that’s a tremendous relief to me. It is not a call not to work, but it is a call to work for what I believe in context of working in cooperation with my God, instead of somehow working to preserve him.