Monday, December 08, 2014

Guest Post: “Our church is just like a family.”

A blogless friend asked me to post this for her--some interesting thoughts:

“Our church is just like a family.”
It sounds nice. Frequently it IS nice. It's meant in a nice way. My belief, however, is that this (frequently) is one of the biggest issues facing the church today.

(How dare you say such a thing!)

Hear me out. Mind, this is not scientific. This is not based in a double-blind, survey laden study. It is based on my own intuition and experience. I don't have a silver bullet. I don't have a plan for you. I know there is a range of churches between “new starts” and the “dysfunctional” ones that I will reference. I know that this is not “in every case”. Oh, and I use quotes around “young” because I don't think that this is about age so much as action. Now that the disclaimers are out of the way, here's what I see:

I happen to be a pastor. I am a single lady in my late thirties. Like many people my age, my family dynamics have changed over the years. As siblings grow and some reproduce, family priorities change. As people move and lives change, family gatherings change. As traditions are harder to keep going, frustrations arise. As frustrations and emotions arise my family does what every good family does. We shoot the occasional miffed zinger at each other and then miserably suppress the rest of our anger. What does this result in? Personally, it results in my own realization that I have lost interest in family gatherings. That I no longer want to go out of my way to attend them. That I would prefer to find some “family of choice” to spend holidays with. Increasingly, this is what I lean towards.

My magic feed tells me that many of my friends and acquaintances find themselves at “Friends-giving” rather than a family Thanksgiving meal. What's this? It's Thanksgiving, with people who you have chosen, even desire to be with on a special day. The host or hostess are the benevolent and fairly democratic matriarchs/patriarchs of this chosen family. Assignments are doled out for dishes. Pinterest and the rest of the internet is pored over. Fancy or unique versions of traditional dishes are created. Special attention is given to making beautiful place settings. Cranberry sauce can still come out of a can.

It's fun. It's new. It gives people a sense of having control over something important. It makes for a gathering of people who are happy to talk to each other. What it lacks are deep rooted historical family issues. It generally lacks people who have nothing in common. Traditions are able to change without great emotional consequence. It is easier for new people to enter and participate fully.

So, I figure. Everyone has at least some dysfunction in their own family. I had thought mine to be fairly functional but the older I get the less I believe this. So, here's the the thing. If you say that your church is like a family, there is a good chance (in my opinion) that you are right: That you belong to a church with people who love each other and who drive each other up the stinkin' wall. That you belong to a church where there are matriarchs who dictate what will happen. That you belong to a church with many historic and deep rooted fights. Many of which have been repressed and rear their ugly head over trivial matters (the fights are likely themselves, trivial). This may work for you. It's familiar. The Word is preached, the sacraments administered. Three or more are gathered in Christ's name and that's dandy.

However, you might be noticing fewer people at family gatherings. Some have died. It used to be the case that the dead were quickly replaced with the young. I don't think it is the style of music that's done it. I don't think whether the liturgy is (horrible terms here) “high” or “low” is what's to blame. I think it is be cause “young” people today have come to a societal conclusion that their family can be one of choice. That misery is not required.

“New starts” or new worshiping communities, new church plants – seem to me to have the greatest appeal to “young people”. Is it because they are sexier? (sometimes they are, in truth). Is it because they are bucking the system, man? Is it because the pastor doesn't wear a clerical shirt? Is it because the candles come from Pier 1? I want to venture and say YES and NO.

I think, that new churches are like Friends-giving. It is a chance to start over with people who WANT to be together and care for each other. People who want to be open and helpful. People who want to be able to have a stake in the family gathering. I think it is easy for NEW people. You know...the new girlfriend/fiance who found your family Thanksgiving awkward? I think SHE can engage and feel welcomed at Friends-giving. Likewise, I think someone fresh and new to church can feel more welcomed and included in a new church family. Eventually traditions will form. Eventually it will look a lot like the old family. That's OK. As long as it's about the community and its purpose for being there -that being the comfort and message of the Gospel.

So often, I spy these dysfunctional family churches trying. Lord, they try. God bless them, they try. They see the successful Pub theology/hymn sings working over at the new church. “Well, gee. That's it. We'll do that too and the young people will come!” My friends, oh my friends. This is so faithfully well intentioned. However, as I see it, this is the equivalent of buying the favorite beer of your son's new girlfriend so that she'll feel welcome at Thanksgiving. It's a sweet gesture. However, if that's all you do, what's the point? If you smile and say nice things to her when she arrives but later question her choice of hair color, belittle her politics or even worse...don't engage her at all, what is the point? By a certain point in the evening she will have sniffed out your dysfunction. Next year she may be at Friends-giving. This dysfunctional family church trying pub theology MIGHT be like your two quarreling aunts inviting you out for a beer. You might go to be polite and then you'll have a friend ready to call you so that you “must go” early, never to return.

When old fights and whether or not Grandma's old casserole dish is used becomes center stage, then maybe it's time to just stop it. Just, stop it.

Here is where my thoughts just kind of peter out.... This is how I see a major problem. I wonder, if one solution to the “church in crisis” is to close more “dying” churches and open more new ones. Not just relocate the same people into a new building. New communities. New churches. Start over.

I wonder, still, if there is a way to take this realization and apply it to the old, messed-up, family churches? Some kind of intervention? Oh, and none of this can be fixed by one person....your pastor will not fix your family. Your son marrying a lovely new wife will not fix old family problems. It has to involve everyone.

Ultimately, the goal is this: that everyone feel welcomed at THE table. That the host of the great meal, Christ, be met and honored and followed. That the guests at the table be fed, healed and forgiven. Anything that gets in the way of this – is a problem.

Sunday, December 07, 2014

Sermon: The Gospel in Times Such as These

         Times such as these—in the first thirty-nine chapters of Isaiah we hear words of condemnation, doom and gloom about a whole variety of societal sins, all this preparing the folk for exile in Babylon.
(Thursday Afternoon Bible Study Folk, this section loosely parallels the first 29 chapters of Jeremiah’s words—talk of collective punishment and no justice)
Then, just as Jeremiah 30 does a 1-80 and becomes the book of Consolation, so too, out of nowhere, “Comfort o’ Comfort my people.” God, the Lover who will literally move mountains and leap valleys—will go through the long, lonely, desolate desert so that He might gently take His people in His arms as Isaiah proclaims, “Here is your God!”
         Among a people torn from their homes, homesick in Babylon, there is Gospel.

         Times such as these—when the sadistic and unfaithful family of Herod was in power, and the awful might of the Roman Empire stood astride the whole world. When it felt like a third Exodus, a second Exile… even as God’s people dwelled in the land.
         At such a time, comes a new beginning. At such a time, comes prophetically strange actions by John, which point to the coming one. At such a time comes the Good News about Jesus the Christ.
         Among a people occupied both physically and spiritually, seemingly disconnected from the promises of God, there is Gospel.

         The Gospel in Times Such as These.
Let us pray

The Gospel in Times Such as These

         I remember the weeks surrounding Hurricane Irene
—the weeks surrounding the Sunday I didn’t preach my trial sermon here…
I was wrestling with the question of whether, if the vote went my way, I should accept a call here.
         And I was truly unsure.
         Don’t get me wrong –I was impressed by the call committee:
Frank was clearly competent.
Michelle had dreams of feeding the hungry.
Joe was the most sincere man I’d ever met.
Peggy asked good tough questions.
Jillian was an active young person in the church.
And Cathy’s consistent openness was a joy.

         For that matter, I’d met the council and committee liaisons—both of them functioned—that’s not always the case, so that was a big plus.
         My uncertainty—to use an old cliché—wasn’t you, it was me.
         For three of the four years I was in Seminary, I was being trained to serve in an African American congregation, in a city. I did Field Ed. in West Philly, Internship in North West Baltimore, and a good number of my classes with the Urban Theological Institute.

         And I worried those experiences shaped me in such a way that this congregation and I would have a very different understanding of the way the world works,
so much so that it would be difficult to preach the Gospel of Jesus Christ here.

         And there have been hiccups here and there, but by and large we’ve made it through, and love one another as well as congregation and Pastor ought.

         I image Times Such as These—one and a half weeks after the Grand Jury decision in Ferguson and 4 days after the decision in Staten Island—might be one of those moments where, because of my experiences in the Black Church and in communities of color, I likely am understanding the way the world works very differently than the majority of the congregation.
         And it’s not just a case of one weird pastor or one weird congregation
—we’re not outliers here.
As Presiding Bishop Eaton recently said, “Following the decisions by grand juries in Ferguson and New York, it has become clear that we have different experiences of life in this country.”

         And I think in Times Such as These it’s worth naming at least one of these divisions
—There is a division between Blue and Black perspectives.

         The Blue perspective is that of police and folk who deeply value law and order.
Some people are just tired of hearing about these deaths—they want to get back to Christmas… or at least Advent.
Other’s feel that if Eric Garner and Michael Brown had not fallen afoul of the Law they’d be alive today—the potential price of criminality, no matter how small, is death.
Still other folk simply understand that cops got it tough, that their job is to keep chaos at bay, and in such a situation severity serves much better than restraint.

And as someone who grew up in Wyoming I’m not naïve, I know when the WTOTC, the local branch of Neo-Nazi’s back home in the ‘90’s, wanted to torch black churches or synagogues or threatened to assassinate judges, it was nice to know there were sheriffs, the ATF, and the FBI, around to discourage that kind of behavior.

There is also a black perspective to all this—the perspective of African Americans, People of Color, and their allies.
For whom these latest deaths are so familiar—to quote a friend “that’s just day to day life for me.”
These deaths are part of a pattern that goes back to Jim Crow, goes back to Slavery, goes back to the Middle Passage when 15% of kidnapped Africans never made the journey from West Africa to the Americas,
and no one seemed to care that they died.
I know when I heard about Michael Brown’s death, my first thought was of my surreal experience outside the local Episcopal Church in Baltimore, when a heavily armored team of police swarmed the area and attempted to arrest some of the local priest’s Confirmation students because they were black males, and therefore fit the description of a nearby shooter.
When we protested that they were all good kids one of the policemen suggested to the priest that if she didn’t shut up he would shoot her.

By now, most you have seen the video of the choking of Eric Garner, what most of you haven’t seen was the second tape that was of the 7 minutes it took for someone to do something about his physical distress. 7 minutes of police and paramedics doing what appeared to be the least they can for the man as he lay dying.
It reminded me of a colleague who heard of the death of one of her parishioners, and made it to his apartment in time to see the paramedics push the body out of the fire escape… I know the South Plainfield rescue squad would never do such a thing, but in an urban mainly African American city—maybe not so uncommon.

         All that to say, “it has become clear that we have different experiences of life in this country,” which I worried about, that week before I preached my call sermon here at St. Stephen.
         My dad, ever practical, told me, “You need money for student loans, insurance for your heart, and, frankly, you really need to move out of the Lundahl’s attic.”
         That didn’t convince me—after all Harry Potter lived in a cupboard under the stairs for years!
         But my mom said something that got to me, “White Suburban people need Jesus too Chris.” And so, by the time I arrived here I already reconciled myself to staying if you’d have me.

         And brothers and sisters, The Gospel in Times Such as These—times of vastly differing experiences, is this, “He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.” And he has!
         We’re Baptized into Christ’s life, death, and resurrection
—we’ve put him on whole cloth!
We are made in the image of God and redeemed in the Image of Jesus Christ.
Look at someone you disagree with
—they’re Christ to you!
This means Black Lives Matter,
This means Blue Lives Matter,
This means, “White Suburban people need Jesus too.”

         In Baptism all are one
—the divisions we construct are ultimately of no value, they are rubbish compared with the unsurpassed glory of Christ Jesus.
They will not stand before Jesus’ prayer to his Heavenly Father, “That they may all be one, just as you Father are in me and I in you—that they also may be in Us, so that the world may believe.”

In Baptism is forgiveness
—Jesus has brought us from death to life,
bought us from Sin and made us his own
—we are forgiven
—it’s already been done,
So we can do the hard work of the Good News of Jesus Christ,
unafraid of admitting where we’re wrong, conceding points,
unburdened of insisting on our own righteousness, or rightness,

because Jesus is our rightness and righteousness we can listen,
really listen, without hidden agendas, or talking points, or waiting with a retort.

Because Christ is our courage, we can stay in difficult conversations even when it makes us uncomfortable, and even when we fear being misunderstood.

Among a people divided and tired and angry, waiting for Christmas in the midst of a crisis, there is Gospel. A+A