The Concept of Mu

Feeling frustrated and confused, I went for a walk last week. I had spent the morning trying to imagine the next gathering in this adventure in consulting. The last time we were together, we focused on the numbers. They had gone on Neighborhood Walks and then we looked at the numbers. We looked at the statistics for each neighborhood and repeated those questions of discernment over and over again.

They were frustrated. They didn’t trust the numbers before them and I know that it wasn’t a distrust of the numbers, but a question of who this outsider was that had the audacity to make such claims about a community she did not know. It’s something I’ve bumped into in pastoral ministry before. I’m the pastor. I have some authority that no one else in the congregation has and so I must know something that they don’t but all I’m doing is asking these annoying questions. They aren’t the only ones who are frustrated.

I’m frustrated too and so I found some comfort on my walk with my earbuds warming my ears with wise words from the poet and community leader Pádraig Ó Tuama. I took comfort in hearing Ó Tuama  reflect upon something he’d read in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. Like me, he didn’t really like the book but he took away from what he read something I didn’t remember. He told Krista Tippett on OnBeing that he’d held onto the idea of mu. He describes it as a Buddhist concept which acts as a response. When a questions is asked, according to Zen tradition, your response can be mu which Ó Tuama explains to be a way of saying

“‘Un-ask the question, because there’s a better question to be asked.’ The question that’s asking is limiting, and you’ll get no good answer from anything.”

Whether church member or consultant, it’s hard not to feel like we should know the answers. We should have some clue to where we are going and what it is that God requires of us and I’ll admit that it feels absurd to repeatedly ask the same questions of the same group of people but I believe in the questions.

Just as we find new hope in words from scripture we’ve heard thousands of times before, when we hear the same questions repeated over and over again, new hope emerges. We hear something we haven’t heard before. Some possibility opens that no one saw before not just because we followed the script and committed to the process but because we changed the script. We said mu to each other when a question didn’t work. We asked different questions, but we needed to ask the wrong questions first so we could find the right questions. We had to make our own edits so that we could put this future dreaming into our own words.

I spend a lot of time wordsmithing the questions that I ask. I spend a lot of time thinking about how these words might lead a group of people to dream about their future ministry and it’s frustrating. I’m frustrated by it. I want the answers as much as those I’m leading, but the truth is that I have more questions than answers.

The next time I meet with this church we’ll dive deeper into the questions. I’ll ask a whole bunch of different questions to encourage their imagination and creativity. I hope the questions build on what we’ve already explored. I hope that these new questions resonate with the yearnings of their hearts but open-ended questions like these are just as likely to paralyze as they are to spark new hope. God’s ways are confusing enough and so I think I might start by introducing the concept of mu so that the questions might not overwhelm us but invite us into deeper discernment of what God is doing with this church.

 

 

What I’m Up to Now

Holy threads are hard to see. They are as invisible and hidden as God. Even when we can see threads stitched through the fabric of our existence, they are often jumbled and knotted. We try to pick up those threads but we cannot untangle them from all of the rest.

The poet William Stafford observes, there is a thread. There is a thread that you follow that can be hard to see and harder still to explain. And yet, even when it feels like it might all unravel, it feels important. It feels like there is something happening and so you can’t help but wonder. I’ve felt like this for a very long time.

If you’ve been following along with my adventures in the kitchen, you know already that I’ve tried many things. I got married and ministry changed. I would no longer be a local church pastor. I’m still holding onto this hope. It hasn’t yet gone away. It is still where I hope God will lead me when we finally stop moving every three years, but until then ministry will look different. And it already has.

I had this idea about somehow ministering to the military community. I began to get some training and tried to imagine doing this thing I had no idea. I went for some more training where I was asked to assert this purpose of the thing I was doing. I couldn’t do it. My heart wasn’t in it. I wasn’t an entrepreneur. Or at least, I didn’t see myself defined by the enterpreneurial model of my training. I felt more called to the local church then ever. And so, I let that idea go. From there, I found myself as an interim pastor and then as a consultant. I’ve found myself to be a writer and even been published by some small miracle. You might also know that I’m working on a book. That project is ever in the background as I try to understand my ministry in this time.

Years ago, when I was interviewing for what would become my first call, the search committee googled me. In that internet search, they found two postings to my college alumni notes. The first bubbled with enthusiasm upon finding my first job at a place that felt every bit as exciting as the art studio where I spent most of my college years. The second was more sullen and downtrodden. I was disenchanted, only one year later, with that same job and was instead applying to seminary. They wanted to know if my feelings toward their church would be as dramatic. They’d already had a rotating door of associates and they wanted every assurance of security they could get. It was, however, the wrong question. What they should have and could have asked me was how I was discerning my call at that time.

Frederick Buchner writes that the “place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.” I was still looking for that place and the truth of the matter is that it is never one place that God calls us.

God continues to work through our lives so that that call changes as we learn of new hungers and discover things that we never, ever thought that could make us glad. There is a holy thread of gladness that I’ve struggled to name but one that I’ve felt the power of in coffee shops and living rooms. I’ve been blessed — as a pastor —  to listen to all of those little stories that are being carried around that seem so insignificant. But, I listen. I listen and I share my gratitude for these gifts. I assure those that have entrusted these stories with me that they matter. Because they do. That holy thread has woven through the words I’ve tried to write and the interim ministry I’ve tried to do and it’s led me to this place where I am embracing the many years of spiritual direction I’ve received and stepping into the role of director.

img_1648You may have seen on Facebook that I sent a letter off in the mail to San Francisco Theological Seminary. In January, I spent the whole month in rainy California where I officially began a program in spiritual direction and began to pull all of these threads together.

I do not dare to suggest that this is the last place that God is calling me but it is where God is calling me now. There are holy threads that I hope to hold. There are stories I want to cherish. There is something about the art of listening that compels me and draws me near. It is with this hope and this faith that I share HOLY THREADS.

I stumble over the words when I am asked what I’m doing right now. I doubt that I’ll ever be able to say that I’m doing the hustle {cue music} as MaryAnn McKibben Dana suggests. (I don’t think she really says that, anyway.) But, the truth is: I am learning a new form of ministry. I am embracing this art form of spiritual direction as one of the many ways that I try to be true to my calling. It is, of course, because it is my calling that the words get jumbled. It’s hard to talk about this new thing. It’s hard to feel confident or even capable while still being a student even though I am certain that this is what I should be doing right now. If you’re curious about this new practice or might know of someone that might be looking for a directee, I hope you’ll check out my new site.

 

The Rise of the Consultant 

I can’t remember when I first heard the term.

I do remember how I felt about it when I heard that there was such a thing as a church consultant. It was not pleasant.

I was of the impression that it wasn’t anything that a pastor couldn’t do and I was a pastor.  I knew the people in the congregation. I knew their hopes and dreams and was doing my best to understand what ministry we might do together. I wasn’t excited about anyone Lee helping with that discernment. It seemed like a waste of time and an even bigger waste of money to hire someone to help us ask the questions we already knew we needed to answer as a church. No, when I first heard the term, I was anything but excited about the idea of a church consultant.

I didn’t like it but it seemed like they were everywhere. Church consultants were popping up all over the place. They were the hot new thing but I couldn’t quite escape the fact that these were people who had left full-time ministry. That’s how it seemed to me. These were people that couldn’t hack it as a pastor, but they still thought they had something to offer the church. So they became a consultant. At that time, they were all older than me. They’d been in ministry a long time. They had a resume that I couldn’t fathom and most of them were connected to the now extinct Alban Institute as was true for the church consultant that I first considered hiring.

I had a fabulous conversation with this gentleman over email and then on the phone about how we might lead the church I was serving to understand their vision. The church knew that this was a question that they must answer. They were anticipating the retirement of the Senior Pastor and were wondering what their ministry might look like after he left. Ever eager to help, I rose to the challenge and did what I could to help them on this quest. It didn’t work. They didn’t choose to hire him and it became clear that I had stepped into something I hadn’t intended. So it was time and time again as an Associate Pastor.

That was then, but now, there are consultants my age. They have resumes like mine and they are immersed in the wondering what the future of the church might be. I’ve learned a thing or two since the first time I heard the term church consultant for the first time. Most importantly, they don’t have all of the answers. They have ideas and questions. They’ve seen some things work in other places but they don’t know what God is doing in this place. None of us do. Church consultants are curious. They are seekers. They are looking to find God in the midst of numbers and figures. They are trying to ask questions that they can’t answer and waiting for the Holy Spirit to show up and make herself known.

They have some skills too. They’ve studied change and tried to understand how much people hate it and what we can do to manage the inevitability of change still finding its way into our laps. And even though consultancy is an idea taken from the business world, the ones in the church are really people of prayer. They are open to transformation. It’s what they hope to find every time they sign a contract with a local church.

I never expected that I would be counted among this group of people. From the very beginning, when I first wandered into the halls of seminary, I have been called to the local church. I saw myself as a pastor. I still feel that I am a pastor but when I got married to a man in the military, my ministry changed. I got excited about interim ministry and eager to help congregations transition into a vibrant future with God. I got some training and got to use my new skills. And then, we moved… again. I interviewed with another church and they are delightful but I didn’t think I could give them my all. I’m newly married. We are only here for a short time. I just didn’t think I could do both well. So, I turned down the opportunity to be their interim pastor.

It was then that the conference minister in the region I find myself asked if I might consider being a consultant. The pastor that they hired is good and talented but she is not trained. She doesn’t have these skills yet and the church needs this work. They need to ask big holy questions about their future. They are not just looking to call a new pastor. They are looking to sell their building and they have to discern what their ministry might be in that unknown future. There was dead air on the other end of the phone when the conference minister said I could do such a thing. I could be a consultant. I didn’t know what to say. I wasn’t sure I could do it. She told me to think about it. “Pray about it,” she said “and if it feels right, write up a proposal.”

Tonight will be the first time that I attempt this new thing. I’ll lead the first session in a series of workshops. I’ll meet with the pastor and share in big questions about what God is doing in this group of people. I’ll be one of those church consultants asking questions and looking for the Holy Spirit.

What is the Meaning of Life?

I’m working on my first chapter. Or I’m trying to work on this first chapter. I’m trying to stick with it. I’m trying to actually finish it rather than jumping ahead to some other chapter that is not quite so hard. For this is the chapter that frames the entire thing. It’s the bit that explains the focus and I can’t help but feel anything but focused.

Every bit of writing, I know, is at attempt to answer some big question. It’s what every novel does. It is what every story answers. There is some question that was so irritating that the writer had to sit down and try to answer it. The problem, it seems, is that I have too many questions. Way too many questions.

Rainer Maria Rilke once wrote to a young poet that he should have patience. Instead of wrestling and battling for answers, he told the poet to love the questions. He advised,

“Don’t search for the answers, which could not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live them. And the point is to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer.”

As I try to focus my thoughts and actually write this stupid chapter so that everything can fall into place (if that is even what might happen), it dawns on me that it’s these questions that I bring into my ministry all of the time. This is not exactly a recipe for ministry but one of those moments where those questions became more than something written on a page. It actually showed up in my ministry.

Two months ago, as the church began to take steps toward imagining its mission, I asked the members of the Consistory to read New Questions for a New Day. In that meeting, we had just articulated the goals for the church moving forward. Before moving onto other business, I asked these leaders to lift up the questions that they are still carrying. With a nod from Jeffrey Jones, I asked them to reframe their questions as new questions. Their list included:

  • How do we spread the love?
  • How do we all reach out in prayer to find inspiration?
  • How do we motivate each other?
  • How do we help people have meaningful and transformational experiences in the church?
  • Where is God in this confusing journey we are on? What does God want?
  • How do we help others expand their family through friendship?
  • What is the meaning of life?

The church is working on writing their mission. I’m trying to write my first chapter but we’re both trying to answer that last question. It’s the question and I don’t know the answer. It’s way too big for any one book or the mission of any local church. That doesn’t mean that we don’t try to write it. It’s what both the church and I are trying to do. God bless us.

The Only Hope for America

Most everything I know about democracy I’ve learned in church. It is in my particular tradition of being church that I’ve had the chance to practice all of the values and ideals that democracy claims.

Mine is the tradition that birthed democracy. They were not perfect people but they came seeking freedom. They came looking for something different than what they had known and so they imagined this new way of governance that would Abraham Lincoln would later declare to be for the people and by the people. Mine is the United Church of Christ, a denomination made up of four different traditions that dared to come together in the certain belief that they could be better together. Imagine that in our current political landscape because I surely cannot. Still, I cannot help but view every bit of coverage of the political process through my experience in church. Take yesterday’s headline in the Washington Post: GOP reaches ‘new level of panic’ over Trump’s candidacy.

It was only two weeks ago that the Republican National Convention wrapped up in Cleveland, Ohio with Donald Trump became the official nominee for the party. Granted, this particular presidential candidate has said some really egregious things since he received that nomination but I can’t help but view this from the perspective of what would happen in church.

Because it does happen in church. It happens in all kinds of churches, not just those in my tradition. So, I’m curious how this panic would play out in a local congregation where a pastor has just been called. (Let’s also keep in mind that pastors and presidents are not at all the same thing. Nor should they be. Good heavens.) I’m trying to imagine what would happen if that pastor was to make the same kind of remarks that Donald Trump has made, if that pastor was to disregard the tradition and teachings of the church and how the people in that church might respond.

Would it only create a stink if the members of that church didn’t agree with what the pastor was doing and saying? Would they question his integrity? Would they wonder if they had made a mistake? What would happen if the powers that be within the denomination would override their decision to call that person to be their pastor and teacher? Would it create a panic within the members of that church? Or would it only raise the temperature of those in the judicatory?

That’s what I wonder most about this particular headline. Is this a question of who knows best? Because this is a question I carry into my ministry every single day. There is a fair amount of distrust among the congregations I have served. They are ever suspicious of the role of the judicatory. In the United Church of Christ, the association, the conference, general synod and the national setting but in your tradition it might include presbyteries, synods and districts. They don’t see the other expressions of the church (that’s what we call these things in the United Church of Christ) as partners in their ministry. And they should be partners. That’s the whole idea. They don’t trust the other expressions and are far more comfortable seeing themselves in that one little congregation all on their own. That may very well be all fine and good until there is a problem with their pastor, which seems to be the issue that the GOP is having with Donald Trump.

They see Trump as a problem. They see the harm that he may cause and they want to try to help. But, how do you do that? In our understanding of governance for the people and by the people, both inside and outside of the church, how do you decide that the people are wrong? After all, the people voted for him. All of those delegates in Cleveland got behind him. All that I can see is broken trust. The GOP doesn’t even need to act. It has already doubted the people. Trust is already broken. So, then, what can be done to rebuild that trust?

I don’t think this is just a question for the GOP, but it’s a question for all of us who dare to believe that we share some common ground. How do we hold that ground together even when we disagree? What happens when someone – maybe even someone well-intentioned  – takes those values and skews them? How do we go back to the core of who we are?

How do we move forward together?

We must move forward together. We must.

I confess to you that I am not a Republican but I love a whole lot of them. They are in the churches I serve. I am their pastor and I always will be. I don’t support Trump but there are those in my church that I do. We don’t agree. And that’s OK. Church has taught me the value of building consensus. It’s taught me the wisdom of taking time to learn and grow together and Jesus reminds me every week in the gospels we share in worship that we really are better together. It is not a question of who know best. I don’t think it can be. It has to be about the kind of trust that we can build with each other so that we can move forward. Together, we must move forward. It is our only hope.

Recipe for the Worrying Church

Sometimes it is the Lectionary that sparks an idea or sometimes it is a story that you have held close over these many years. This recipe is a little bit of both.

On Sunday, we will hear the story of Martha who is very worried and distracted. She’s rushing about and keeping busy. She’s doing all of the things and not getting an ounce of help. Understandably, she complains. To this, Jesus chides her. Or it seems he chides her for not choosing the better part like her sister Mary.

But, telling someone not to worry is just stupid and rather pointless. They will then begin to worry about the fact that they are worrying. That is, if they are really worry warts, that is what they will do. Best not to tell them their worrying is pointless but instead redirect their worry and distraction in some other more helpful way.

This brings me to the story that will begin my sermon on Sunday. It is the story of Jerry and Brian from my days of serving in Maine. In my sermon, I tell their story like this:

Brian and Jerry are bridge partners. I knew this because Jerry, who came to Bible Study every week after his wife fell ill, talked about his bridge partner all of the time. I knew Brian, of course. He also came to worship every Sunday but Brian was far more quiet than Jerry. Jerry talked a lot.

He talked about everything loudly and enthusiastically. He spoke like a teenager that was so excited that he just couldn’t get the words out fast enough. So the words all clumped together. Sometimes I had to ask him to repeat himself. Because I didn’t want to miss out on his joy. But, Jerry was getting more and more confused. He fumbled his words and thoughts jumbled too.

And do Brian, his bridge partner, gave him a worry stone, a worry stone that Jerry carried around in his pocket all of the time. He would show it to me when he couldn’t remember what he wanted to say. And then, he’s explain how Brian encourages him. Whenever Jerry starts to wander, Brian asks if he has his stone. This worked until one day when Brian asked about the stone, and Jerry said he lost it.

Jerry, like Martha, did not need a reminder that he should just stop worrying. What he needed was another worry stone. Likewise, we should not busy ourselves as leaders in the church telling those in the pews not to worry. They are already really worried. They are worried about violence and hate spurned by racism, maybe even their own racism. They are worried about the election, what that election might mean for their advocacy or even their church’s programs. Never mind the needs of their families.

I so appreciate Elisabeth Johnson’s wisdom on Working Preacher in her reminder that “we cannot seem to quell our anxious thoughts and frantic activity. It is true that much of our busyness and distraction stems from the noblest of intentions. We want to provide for our families, we want to give our children every opportunity to enrich their lives, we want to serve our neighbors, and yes, we want to serve the Lord.” There is good reason to worry about the future including the future of our churches. It comes from the noblest of intentions. We want to serve the Lord but this is so overwhelming that we can’t help but get a little lost like Jerry.

Here is the recipe.

RECIPE FOR MINISTRY-2

With every good recipe, there are a few more hints. There are notes that you make as you make it your own which you’ll surely add to this card, but here are a few I’d add to my own recipe:

  • Rocks can not only be collected but also be ordered rocks like these at Oriental Trading.
  • Add a bit about worry stones to your sermon. This is optional, of course, but it may increase the connection. Be creative. Go where God invites.
  • And, as it helps, here are some words for Invitation to the Offering:

Can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life? Jesus asks us before inviting us to consider the lilies. Like Martha, we are too worried and distracted to understand these words. Still, we give our gifts. We offer our praise even when our worries outweigh our hope. And so today, give as you receive. Take a worry stone from the plate as you give your offering. Hold onto this stone whenever you might worry and always remember to listen. 

Please share pictures of your worry stones or share with us how you are adapting this recipe for your ministry in the comments below.

Until Sunday

Last month, when this video appeared on Facebook, I was amused.

I laughed out loud but it didn’t feel like my story. Not anymore. There was a time in my ministry when I heard these comments said every single day. There was a time when I felt like I needed to fight for the rights of women to lead in the church with every good bit of exegesis that I could muster from Paul’s would-be mandate that women should be silent. But, it hasn’t felt like my fight anymore. That is, until Sunday.

I had heard that this little church had had some hesitancy about hiring a female pastor. It was said in passing once or twice before. Even if it hadn’t been voiced, I could see in their history. They had been blessed by countless women who have preached and presided in the years since their beloved pastor died but they had never, ever hired a woman to lead them. Until Sunday, I hadn’t thought much of this. There could be a thousand reasons of this. After all, in the United Church of Christ, according to the 2015 statistical report47.9% of all active, non-retired authorized ministers are female. 

Until Sunday, I wasn’t especially worried about the majority of men holding that 52.1%. It was on Sunday that I heard both the fear and the welcome of women in ministry. It wasn’t the focus of the conversation. But, somewhere in the middle of discussing John Dorhaurer’s Beyond Resistance, we got onto inclusive language. That was when the dear 90 year old woman seated beside me told me that she didn’t think that women should ever lead. She didn’t think that women should be pastor and she didn’t think that a woman should be president. It was then that I heard every hesitation about women in leadership that had bubbled under the surface.

So, I asked this dear 90 year old woman why she felt this way and she struggled for an answer. She told me that that was how it had always been and she didn’t understand why it needed to change. Even so, she saw that it was changing. Everything around her is changing so much so that she kept repeating the question, “Why can’t I change?”

On the third or fourth repetition of this question, the conversation within that small group turned to my leadership. It wasn’t about women’s leadership but what I brought to this group of people. I get up each Sunday to preach but I do not like being the center of attention. I hid under my book as they started listing off my strengths. I didn’t want this to be all about me but I heard every word.

 

They were ready to not like me. They were ready to reject me on the fact that I was a woman. And yet, there is something different about the way that I lead. They’ve noticed that only in these few months that I have been their interim pastor. I preach differently. I ask more questions. I want to know what they think. I don’t assume that I have all of the answers.

When that dear old lady asked again, “Why can’t I change?” I told her she didn’t have to because it is enough that she loves me. There is some truth in that but it is not enough to love only those that you can see. It is not enough to celebrate the strengths of those that God puts in your way. Until Sunday, I did not realize how comfortable I had become with my own privilege.

In that same 2015 statistical report, it states that over half of co-pastors (51.5%) and interim / supply pastors (53.4%) were female, and over two-thirds (70.3%) were associate / assistant pastors. Next year, I will be counted in this percentage. I am so grateful to have meaningful work but that is not true for every woman. There are women that can’t bust through the stained glass ceiling because the local church refuses to celebrate the strengths of women in ministry or the gifts of people of color or the gifts of LGBT pastors.

In his book, the same one that was supposed to be the focus of our conversation that Sunday, John Dorhauer makes the point that autonomy is what will kill us. Autonomy is what allows every congregation to dismiss women’s leadership. There is no hierarchy to insist that God might be up to something. There is no one to hint at the strength of women because the “basic unit of the life and organization” in the United Church of Christ is the local church. Nothing in the denomination’s Constitution and the Bylaws “shall destroy or limit the right of each Local Church to continue to operate in the way customary to” the local church. Until Sunday, I had ignored that this is still my fight. It’s still my struggle. It’s still my task to push through the stained glass ceiling (and every other ceiling) by reminding myself and everyone else that yes, yes, you really do need to change.

Talking in Church

After my mom was diagnosed with breast cancer, she dragged us to church. It felt like she was pulling us by our ears with one hand and spitting in the palm of the other to smooth out my brother’s hair. That’s not how it happened, of course. It is simply what remains from those first few years of sitting uncomfortably in a pew.

We didn’t do much sitting in those pews. In the mere 15 minutes we were in the worship service, before we departed for Sunday School, we would writhe and squirm. I would draw all over whatever was in the pew racks with the little pencils that seemed to be just my size. But, I was not allowed to sit on the floor and use the pew as a desk. My mother’s index finger chastised me for it. I was to sit still and be quiet.

There was no talking in church.

In many congregations, this is still true. There may be no sign on the sanctuary wall to dictate this rule but it is a value deeply held by those who were also chastised by their mother’s stern index finger. And so, the structure of the worship service does not engage the worshipper in a conversation but invites them to sit in a quiet place and listen. We don’t touch each other. We don’t know anything about each other’s lives. We listen to the preacher.

I get to be that person. I get to speak because I am entrusted to preach.

All other sounds are silenced unless someone’s phone happens to ring and then there is the sudden jolt of a reminder that there is such a thing as relationship.

But, otherwise, you are alone in that pew. You do not engage. You listen.

The architecture in most sanctuaries are designed for this. There is no soft reminder in that pew that to love your neighbor is to love yourself. There is only the assertion that you should face front and pay attention. If you do try to talk to the person next to you, it strains the neck. The wooden board arrests your back in one position so that you can only yield to its rigidity and face forward. You must not speak but listen.

Fingers are wagged at you if you dare to interrupt the silence. And it’s not your mother, this time. The sad part of this is: you came looking for community. It’s the primary reason that people come to church and it’s the reason that most people stay. The tenets of the faith are not as important as the connection that we find because most of us are lonely. We live alone. We live faraway from family and sometimes even friends. No one hugs us. No one listens to what happened in our day. We come to church looking for a place where we can be loved. We come to share our lives out loud and all the church does is call for quiet.

My mom shushed because that’s how she was raised. She was mimicking her parents and probably didn’t want to appear to have raised wretched children. There’s some pride there but my mom also came back to church because she was looking for something. She was looking for an answer to why terrible things happen. She wanted to know why she was going to die and she wanted to know that her kids were going to be OK. (My insistence that the pew was a really good desk did not ease that.) The minister talked to her a lot. He was at our house often but I don’t remember a single person talking to her in the pews.

I wonder what would have happened if someone had. I wonder if she would have felt less lonely about this impending doom. I wonder what would have happened if the worship was structured in such a way where she got the chance to speak. She might not choose to say anything. That’s fine. But, what if she risked it? What if she voiced her question aloud in the prayers? Or what if the person in the pew beside her asked a similar question when they were talking about the Bible passage for that day? What would have changed? What would have been different?

Those are my questions. That’s what I wonder every week as worship is about to begin. I know that every person in that sanctuary came to church with something on their heart. It could be a joy. It could be a sorrow or an impossible question. I may never know what those things are but they came to church because they needed someone to hear it. God will but they didn’t need to come to church for that thing to be heard. They came to church because they wanted to be less alone. I won’t be the one to shush them. I may not even be the with an answers but I’ll give them a space to speak.

I’ll always encourage talking in church.

 

Jesus is…

In the midst of another holy season, my pastor invited us to ponder who Jesus is. The question stuck with me and inspired a whole preaching series on christological terms. It’s what has led us in the church I’m serving as interim pastor through Lent. Every week, as worship began, we’ve asked ourselves: who are we are who is our God? Today, between palms and passion, I dared to give my answer of who Jesus is. It was a service with a lot of scripture. Before the sermon, we heard both Luke 19:28-40 and Luke 22:39-23:25. Worship concluded in the poetry of Luke 23:26-49 but it the sermon that follows.


Jesus is… Jesus is… the one who leads us toward peace. The one that saddles his hope and his love upon a colt and parades his way into the city where he will die. Through the gate and into the city, with people on his right and on his left, waving palms and shouting, “Hosanna! Hey sanna! Sanna Sanna Ho!” 

“Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!” they shout without ever really understanding what they announce. Jesus is… the one who cannot be stopped. He will wash feet and break bread. He’ll pour just enough wine so that we do not miss how precious this life is. He will do all of these things under watchful eyes. He will do it without their blessing or even their understanding. He will turn tables and resist definition. He will not let their praise and their honor forget that God is a God of love. God requires love. God insists on love. God gives love especially to those who don’t seem to deserve it. 

  
Jesus is… Jesus is… the light of that love. He is the Light of the World. The one that removes darkness, exposes darkness and dares to declare even in the darkest places that there is light and that it is good. At times, he glows. He radiates that light so much that even his clothes become white as snow. Other times, that light is so faint and dim, like a candle blowing in the wind. In him was life, and the life was the light of all people, not to be overcome or overwhelmed but as steady as the light cast upon the sea by a distant lighthouse. Guiding us. Encouraging us. Seeking us out. Leading us to where we are called to be. Jesus is… the great light that shines in our deepest darkness.He is the true light, that just might enlighten everyone, that light that is coming into the world. That is already in the world. That can’t be contained by this world.

It is something that can only be understood in the face of death. Only as we wonder why any life or any hope or any revolution must come to an end can we glimpse the face of Christ who was in the world…even if the world did not know him. But, it was always there. He was always there. In the very beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. Jesus is… the Word, in your words. In our words as much as he might be in all our hopes and dreams. Jesus.. is the very logic of the divine. He is the flesh that reveals God’s deepest wisdom. He is the reason and the order of God’s love for this world and for its people. Jesus is… the articulation of that love. He is the very expression of the reason that God loves, but it is a reason without logic. Or without our logic. God loves because God loves. That love has no beginning and no end.

So that it seems that God might be a chicken, foolishly opening her arms and expanding her welcome when it seems anything but wise. Much as we might refuse, much as we might think we know better, much as we might reject that love, the fact does not change: Jesus is… the Good Shepherd. Even with a hundred sheep or more to protect, he goes chasing after that one sheep that is lost and alone. He welcomes it home. He dares to claim that lost and sinful sheep to be a member of God’s family. Even that sheep is loved, embraced, affirmed, blessed and beloved. Jesus is… the one who gathers all of those broken and dejected people into his fold, declaring each and every one of them to be so loved by God. Others might mock or scoff. They may sneer and spit but Jesus is… the one who knows that we are like sheep without a shepherd.

And it is because of this that Jesus is… Jesus is… the Messiah. He won’t be a warrior or a king. He will demand justice not for the rich and powerful but for those who want to have life and have it abundantly. He will not kill and destroy for his is not that power. Love is not that kind of power. Jesus is… the anointed one. Jesus is… the restoration. Jesus is… the healer, the redeemer, the savior not just for individual souls but for the whole world. Jesus is.. the rabble-rousing, stern-speaking voice of redemption. It is voice that suggests, posits, even demands another way. There is more to this precious life than violence and fear. There is more than hatred and greed. There is more that love can do. There is more.

Jesus is… the Messiah. He is the hope. He is the love. He is the promise that love is greater than fear. Jesus is.. the force of God’s greatest conviction. Jesus is… that wonder-working, barrier-breaking, hope-restoring, healing and redeeming strength that dares to feed and forgive and bless the love that we are able to find in each other and in this world, because there is more. There is so much more of that love. There is more food to be shared. There is more healing to be done. There is more mercy to be granted. There is more hope to find. There is more love to give.

There are others that might say they know the way. Others that might claim that they can make this world great again. Other presidential hopefuls. Other emperors. Other kings. Other warriors that might lead by force. There are other powers that be. Others that might claim the title but Jesus is… the Son of God. He will not let others define what that means. He knows what God can do, even if we do not.

So that Jesus is… the one who goes to the garden alone. He is the one that prays in his own dark night of the soul. With hosannas still ringing in his ears, he will wonder what can be saved. He will wonder who can be saved while the disciples sleep. 

Jesus is… the one they arrest. He is the one condemned for what they can’t understand. He is the one that will be denied. They will say they do not know him. They had nothing to do with him, no connection to that kind of love. But, Jesus is… the one, maybe the only one, that will not forget that God is love. God requires love. God insists on love. God gives love especially to those who don’t seem to deserve it. 

No one really deserves it. No one deserves to be mocked and beaten. Wearing the shackles of human fear, Jesus is… the one who bears our sins. He washed our feet and he blessed our lives. He gave us food and wine. He healed our broken parts but we stopped him. We never quite believed that love was greater than fear. 

  

We are still trying to believe it. Maybe Jesus is… still the one guiding, encouraging and leading us. Maybe. But, when Herod asks him who he is, Jesus is… the one who did not answer. He is the one who did not speak. He did not speak. He did not try to explain. He was silent. Silent as the crowd shouted, “Crucify, crucify him!” 

Lessons from the Past

After worship was over, in the middle of the Annual Meeting of this tiny church I’m serving as interim pastor, we shared in the work of memory. Earlier that week, I had taped a blue line upon the wall of the church hall with my trusty painter’s tape and chartered those significant events that I could cull from the archives and records.

There was a fire many, many years ago so that some records have been turned into ash but there are gaps in the present too. There are dates overlap from annual reports that don’t seem to have all of the information that we might hope to find but I was able to find when the women’s group started and when most recent bylaws were approved.

Inspired by Roy Oswald’s Discerning Your Congregation’s Future, we shared in what he calls an Evening of Historical Reflection but it was daytime for us and we attempted to do too much too fast. I knew that there was a risk of this. I grimaced a bit inside when the Consistory offered that this would be the best time because there would be so many more people present and engaged, but it was too much. It really should have happened on its own.

This church has had a particularly challenging recent history. I came to be their interim pastor after an abrupt departure of their previous pastor. This is a guy who had come from faraway to be their pastor after their beloved pastor died during Holy Week not too many years before. Theirs is a familiar story of a new pastor not measuring up to the old pastor. Maybe there were other factors that contributed to the abrupt ending of the relationship between this pastor and church. It was one of the things that I had hoped to become clear in this act of memory.

As Oswald suggests, we worked backwards in time. We started with the present and attempted to work through each pastorate which meant that we started with me. So, I asked: what has happened since this relationship began? The responses were all about how it feels now. There were no particular events offered as they would struggle to do moving backward in time but it was mostly about feelings. There is more energy. There is a sense of togetherness. There has been healing. All good things but are these the type of things that we would record in the records of the church history? I don’t know. Then, it was time to talk about that previous relationship with that former pastor. Again, there were more feelings. So many feelings that it was hard to name the events that we might want to name as points of historical significance.

We moved on to talk about another interim and the beloved pastor and everything that was said was about how wonderful these men were. Of this, I have no doubt. They sound like amazing men who loved these people with such depth and power. It’s hard to argue with that. But, I do want to argue. I want to argue because the role of clergy is changing. With the increasing distrust of institutions, there are big questions about the role of professional ministry being raised. Clergy have gotten more and more professional but churches have been less and less able to afford their services (and their student loan debt). Questions have been raised about not paying clergy while others wonder if bivocational ministry should be the new normal. And yet, it is not just financial realities that are changing how clergy function.

Clergy were long ago seen as the theologian in residence and the only one that could offer pastoral care but that seems to be changing as much as how clergy lead. So, I want to argue with these good people about why and how clergy matter. (To be clear, this is my vocation. I loved what I do. I hope there are churches that want to pay me a salary with benefits and a pension in the future. I am called to this as I know that there are other clergy that are just as called to this work as I am.) But, should every church bear that financial burden of paying a clergy person? Should each individual congregation assume that the only measure of success is having their very own pastor?

I look back into the history of this church to see that they shared a pastor with the other United Church of Christ just a mile down the road. They decided in 1931 to dissolve that relationship but the history observes that the congregation always struggled with membership and finances. Would the best option for their future be to reignite that relationship? Are there other possibilities of partnership with the several other United Church of Christ congregations in the area? Is there only one mode of success? Does success only come with calling a new pastor? What might the past teach us?