Monday, October 5, 2015

A Congregation Comes to a Close - 3: Anything Going Right?

What's going well?
That was the first question our consultant asked us yesterday when the congregation met for a conversation over a potluck luncheon. 
It seemed that each of the four round tables of people came up with one similar answer: We are all still coming.
True enough.  Attendance has not dropped at all.
And, I added, people are still doing the work that needs to be done.  We still have ushers and communion servers and liturgists and Powerpoint operators.   And people made lunch!
Perhaps lethargy.  Perhaps denial.
But, on the whole, I think folks really do want to be together as they have been for as long as they can.

Morning Mindfulness

I don't know that I have ever taken out the trash mindfully, but today I did.  Sort of.
I know about mindfulness but, as with so many things, what I know does not translate into what I do.  Yesterday, I picked up a little book on mindfulness, which is probably why . . . the trash.
The book contains an introduction by Jon Kabat-Zinn, whom I think of as the father of the modern mindfulness movement in the west; at least one of the writers is from Oxford University; and it sets out an eight week plan ~ just matching the time our congregation has left.  Seven weeks plus the Thanksgiving Week after our closing services, when I will probably be numbed by exhaustion.  So it should be a good book for me.
This morning, on my pretend day off, I had imagined myself lying around in bed, reading the introductory chapters.  But at 7:15, I realized that I had forgotten about the trash, and leaped out of bed and made a dash for the window.  The garbage collectors were a bit late, so I hurried into a sweatshirt and running shoes and ran downstairs.
And then I mindfully took out the trash.
Remembering that it was down my own front steps that I tumbled nearly two years ago and broke the ankle that still hurts when it rains, and this moving carefully.
Grateful that the garbage collectors come and pick up trash and recycling.
Recalling autumn afternoons with my grandmother, who burned the trash, hers and ours, in an outdoor brick incinerator, a structure which always held a certain fascination for me.
A better beginning to the day than yesterday, when I was so pre-occupied by thoughts of the coming morning at church that I took my blood pressure medication twice, both before and after my shower, after which I had to sit on the toilet lid and google overdose information.  (I take so little that the primary side effect of times two has been the many, may trips to that toilet and others in the 27 hours since, as my body relives itself of the extra water.)
But here I am, writing and eating my poached eggs.
It is not so easy, mindfulness in 2015 America.

Sunday, October 4, 2015

A Congregation Comes to a Close - 2 (Sermon: Brothers and Sisters [Hebrews])

Have any of you heard of the book All The Light We Cannot See? 
It’s a recent novel by Anthony Doerr, with whom I am not otherwise familiar.  It was published last year and won several prizes, including the Pultizer Prize, a major book award, but that’s not why I’ve been reading it.  I’ve been reading it because a friend recommended it -- and by “reading it,” I mean that I raced through it once, because the suspense was almost intolerable, and now I am re-reading it slowly, savoring every word.
All The Light We Cannot See. The title is ironic, in that the two main characters represent seeing and not-seeing in different ways. They are each engulfed in the horror of World War II as it plays out in Europe.  One of the main characters, a young German boy, is pulled into the Nazi war machine, and struggles mightily to see clearly what he does not want to see at all -- the corruption and evil which dominate his life.  The other, a young French girl, is trapped in a city occupied by the Germans.  She is literally blind, and yet she sees the world around her clearly and is thus able to act with tremendous dignity and courage.
The lives of these two characters are intertwined early on, although they do not know it until they meet, by happenstance, in the middle of a great battle.  And we understand that, while the title of the book, All The Light We Cannot See, is about light, and vision, at many levels, light and vision are about relationship – and, ultimately, about relationship for good.
Jesus, too, as we so often hear in the Bible, is about light, and vision.  “I am the light of the world,” he tells us, in the Gospel of John.  I bring not merely sight, but vision – understanding – of what is real, of what is important – he tells us as he heals those who are without literal sight.
And this light, this vision, this Jesus – he is about relationship.  Today’s text reminds us that he is in relationship with us.
Our text today comes from the Book of Hebrews.  We don’t know who wrote the Book of Hebrews, although it’s possible that the apostle Paul did, which would mean that it was written in the middle of the first century.  What we do know is that it makes reference to Jesus’ calling his disciples, calling us, brothers and sisters. Jesus calls us brothers and sisters. 
What is a brother or a sister? The most basic definition is that brothers and sisters are people whose relationship is determined by their having a parent in common. And who is Jesus?  The son of God, the heir of God, as our passage also tells us – which makes us also the children and heirs of God and God’s goodness.  The heirs of God’s light. 
But – let’s get back to brothers and sisters.  What does it mean that Christ calls us brothers and sisters?  It means that he draws us together into relationship as one family of siblings. 
And what does it mean to be included in this family, to be brothers and sisters to one another?  It means that we follow Jesus and his teachings.  It means that we are drawn into his light. It means that his way of seeing, his vision, become our way of seeing and our vision.
And what are those teachings?  Love God.  Love one another.  What path do they light?  The path of love.  How are we to see? With love.
Since we are talking about brothers and sisters today, I want to focus on the call to love one another.  The call to be in relationship. And I want to do that in the light of this congregation’s current situation, and in the light of the path of love we walk during this difficult time of loss and sadness. And in light of the loving meal we are about to share.
At their best, what do brothers and sisters do for one another?
For one thing, they, brothers and sisters recall a common heritage together.  They know who they are – together.  In my husband’s family, there is an old photograph of the four siblings lined up – seated on an ironing board, as it turns out – in a little row, when they were about three, four, five, and six years old.  Last New Years’, the four of them sat on a couch – they don’t fit on an ironing board anymore! -- in the same configuration, so that a matching photograph could be taken – nearly sixty years later.  A sign of one of the things brothers and sisters in relationship do for one another: they remember the past together.
Another thing brothers and sisters often do together is share activities and events together.  Some extended families live in close proximity to one another – my husband’s brother and one of his sisters, and their spouses and families, now extending to two generations, live in the same town as his mother, and so they all share time together on nearly a daily basis.    But even families whose members live at a considerable distance usually find time to get together for holidays and weddings – or funerals --  and for graduations and new babies and other significant milestones.   Brothers and sisters share their lives with one another.  They tend to relationships.
A third thing brothers and sisters do? They take care of one another.  When one is in trouble, others come running.  When life hands one an unexpected challenge, the others are there.  When someone needs a listening ear, it’s often a brother or sister who calls.  When practical needs arise, it’s sometimes a brother or sister who lends a hand.
And I’m not just talking about biological brothers and sisters. Many of us have neighbors and friends who are as brothers and sisters to us – people with whom we share memories, and activities, and care. 
And in the Christian family? We are brothers and sisters together.  In relationship together.  Jesus calls us brothers and sisters because we are his disciples, because we follow him.  Biology has nothing to do with it.  Geographical proximity has nothing to do with it.  Longevity has nothing to do with it.  We are brothers and sisters because we are loved, and love one another, in Christ.  We are brothers and sisters because Jesus is our brother.
What does it mean for us, here at Boulevard, to be brothers and sisters, as we prepare to close? It means the same three things as it usually does, but in a very particular way:
As brothers and sisters in Christ, we remember together.  I invite – no, I URGE—you to spend time with your Boulevard family remembering.  Take a look at those old photo albums.  Pull out old cards and letters.  Talk over the memories with one another.  Treasure one another and what you have been to each other. 
You know what one of my favorite Boulevard memories is?  On one of my first Sundays here, Julie K pulled me aside and said, “Now I’m going to explain to you how things work around here!”  And then a year later, as she lay dying in hospice, she told me all about her childhood in a West Side Hungarian family.   I treasure those memories – and here I am sharing them with you, again.  Please – share your pasts with one another.  How do things work around here?  What did you learn here, together?  How did you worship together?  How did you celebrate together?  Remember, my friends, and remember well.
As brothers and sisters in Christ, we also share the present with each other.  Again, I urge you – take advantage of our last weeks of worship together.  Come to Bible study.  Spend time with your friends.  Participate in the work ahead together – come together to help with clearing out of the church.  It can be hard to see the light when the air is thick with sadness, as we all know from cleaning out the homes of loved ones whose lives have ended. But that is work that siblings do together.  And then -- Share in our final services together.
As brothers and sisters in Christ, we also care for one another.  My friends, we have many members who are unable to get out, to make it to worship, very often, or ever.  I urge you – care for one another.  I.  Y. R. D and N.  P.  S. T.  People just in and out of hospitals this past week.    These folks are not solely the responsibility of the pastor.   Cards are not solely the responsibility of S.  Make it your business to care for each other.  A card, a call, an email, a visit – these things mean so much. If you are an elder, past or present, talk to me so that we can plan to take communion to someone at home or in the hospital.  And – look around at those who ARE here, every week that they can be.  Everyone is hurting.  Make up your mind to reach out to one or two people each week so that you can have a talk about our closing. These are the sorts of things that brothers and sisters do for one another.
All the light we cannot see?  We do see the light, the light of Jesus, in relationship. In relationship with one another.
And today – today we have a special opportunity to share memory, and present, and care, not only with one another, but with the whole world!  Today is World Communion Sunday, which means that all over the world, at virtually every hour, congregations are sharing together the meal provided to us by Jesus Christ.  Today we are invited to remember, not only ourselves, but the worldwide church -- which for those of us here means folks from Africa and Europe and Asia and the Americas, and which for all of us means the whole world.  Today we are invited to participate in a great event, to share as brothers and sisters with people the whole world over.  And today we are called to care for one another by sharing the food and drink with which Jesus cares for us.
It is often – no, it is always – the case that our own sadness is relieved by attentiveness to others.  When we struggle and suffer, we grow, and our capacity for love increases, as we tend to our relationships with others.  And so, even as we re-affirm that we here at Boulevard are brothers and sisters, let us also celebrate the brotherhood of Jesus, with us and with all peoples of the world.  All the light we think we cannot see is right here, emanating from this table and filling the world with sight, with vision, and with relationship – with love. Amen.

Saturday, October 3, 2015

A Congregation Comes to An End -1

For nearly two years, my little congregation has been struggling to stay open, to merge with another congregation, to re-create itself, and now ~ finally ~ to close.

Much of what has happened has not been bloggable, but the time has come to go public, at least to some extent.

In a nutshell: a month after my arrival at the church, an unforeseen financial crisis resulted in a significant decrease in our income.  Eventually, we approached two other congregations about some sort of potential relationship.  One quickly backed out of our discussions.  With the other, we spent many months exploring a possible merger ~ and then it backed out as well.  At that point, we were financially strapped and our leadership was exhausted.  We made a few efforts to renew ourselves internally, but it became apparent that there was no energy for a new start, and on September 13 the congregation voted to close the church by the end of the year.

That little paragraph represents a mountain of hard work, frustration, hope, and sadness.

For the next several weeks, my sermons will be addressed to this particular context: a congregation on the verge of closing.  And I am going to write about the process, to the extent that I can.  Maybe someday, I'll write about the entire enterprise.
Tomorrow: World Communion Sunday, followed by a Congregational Conversation over a meal, as we begin to process reality together.
Image: Our sanctuary.  When I posted this picture on FB, a friend commented that it was beautiful, but would look better full of people.  Indeed.  That would be the problem.

Friday, October 2, 2015

My Mother, My Brother, Me

Fifty-five years is a long time not to have lived.

I've been pondering for days: what to write, about a mother and brother who barely had a chance? 

About growing up with half your family missing?

About what it might have been like to have had a mother with whom to share all of life's events, the big ones and the small ones?

I think that what I most regret this year is that: I don't know who they were.

My brother Dud never got to become who he was.  Today, had he lived, he would be almost 56.  What would he have loved as a boy?  Where would he have gone to school?  Would he have married and had a family?  What would have been his profession, his passions?  Would we be close friends, as my brother David and I are?

And my mother? I have a few things -- some pictures, one letter, and a fragment of another, some jewelry.  I have a few clear memories, and so I know that we, her children, were dear to her, and that she was kind and gracious and friendly.

What I have realized that I don't know at all is this: What did she care about, out there in the world?   What were her passions?  What might she have discovered and pursued, had she gone back to college when her children were grown?   Would she have become a determined advocate and fund-raiser for any causes?  A writer?  A world traveler?

And what about us, her children and grandchildren?  What would have been her priorities for us, in high school and college?  Have would she had responded to our mis-steps and failures?  Would we talk on the phone every day?  Would she have shown up and made pots of soup and changed sheets and vacuumed the house during those miserable pregnancies of mine?  Would she have been here for births and a death, for cancer and a broken ankle?  Would she have come to recitals and plays and games and graduations?

Would we have grown up in Florida?  That, I think, was the plan.  My parents had built a house for us in Vero Beach the Spring Before, and then we went back to Ohio.  When we returned to Florida the next year, would it have been for good? 

Who might I be, had I grown up in Florida instead of Ohio, at home instead of at boarding school,  with a mother instead of not?

But most of all, I just want to know:  What would she have to say? About anything at all?

Image: Vero Beach FL, May 1960 ~ a few months before they were killed in an automobile collision.

Saturday, September 26, 2015

Honor One Another - Sermon

As many of you know, I spent part of my vacation last week with my 83-year-old dad, canoeing in Canada.  My dad is a great storyteller, and last week he was full of stories about his years in business.  The family business was a grain business in a small town in southwest Ohio, a business founded by my great-grandfather in the early 20th century.    Do you know what a grain dealer is?  You’ve seen these business, with their silos and tall grain elevators, out in the country and in small towns.  Essentially, grain dealers are middlemen between farmers and big grain merchants, selling seed and fertilizer to farmers in the spring, and buying their crops in the fall to sell them to larger buyers.  When I was a child, there were four prosperous grain dealerships in my small hometown of a few thousand people.
One of my dad’s stories this past week involved his grandfather’s dealings with two customers one morning.  The first came in with his truck full of corn and said to my great-grandfather, “Well, Bert, I might as well let you cheat me as anyone else! What’ll you give me for my corn?”  So my great-grandfather made an offer, and the farmer countered, and the haggling began.  Eventually they reached a price.

Awhile later, a second customer arrived with a truck full of corn and approached my grandfather.  “Well, Bert,” he said, “I’ve got a load of corn for you, and I trust that you’ll do the best you can for me.”  They talked for a few minutes and, again, a price was agreed upon. 
After that customer left, my dad said, “Grandfather, it seems to me that you paid that first man a little less than his corn was worth, and the second a little more than his was worth.  Why is that?”

“You could be right,” said my great-grandfather. “I’ll tell you: That first fellow came in here filled with suspicion.  He insulted me right of the bat, and it was clear that we were going to bargain over the price, no holds barred.  So he set the tone, and my task was to bargain him down. And maybe I did get the price down a bit lower than I might have otherwise.
“But the second fellow, he came in here and said, ‘I trust you to do the best you can for me.’ He kind of put me on my honor, didn’t he?  And so I probably did pay him a little more than I should have, because I was bending over backwards to make sure I did the right thing.”
Just a couple of transactions, a couple of out hundreds that took place that fall.  But they say a lot about the different ways in which we approach one another, don’t they?
How do we as people of faith approach one another?  How do we respond to one another?  Which farmer are we?  Which version of my great-grandfather are we? 
This is one of the great subjects of the Christian faith: How do we treat one another?  How do we care for one another?  If you watched any of the pope’s speeches or listened to any of his homilies, you know that we’ve been hearing about this subject all week.  Perhaps it says something about us as a country and about Christianity as a faith, that our newscasters and commentators have been so surprised and made so much of his openness to others and his insistence that we all extend ourselves to others, whether the topic be immigration, or the death penalty, or poverty, or interfaith relationships.  Maybe we continue to struggle with this sort of openness, of extending ourselves to others, just as Jesus’ original disciples did.

In Bible study on Thursday, we addressed the same topic.  We’re reading a book by Marcus Borg, The Heart of Christianity, and this week we were invited to think about how we respond to reality and to others.  Borg says that we tend to respond in one of three ways: fearfully, indifferently, or openly.  The disciples and Jesus in our story today certainly exemplify two of those ways: the response of fear, and the response of openness.                        
The disciples have, in a very short time, come to think of themselves as the elite, as Jesus’ special followers.[1]  They want to think of themselves as an exclusive group, as the group  which understands Jesus’ teachings, which has found favor with Jesus, and which has the sole right to act on his behalf.[2]  And so they respond with fear, as adversaries, to others, who have been healing in Jesus’ name.  They sound like little kids: they shouldn’t be doing that!  They shouldn’t be healing people! We’re the ones who get to do that!

They draw lines: we’re in, you’re out.  We’re in separate groups, on opposite sides, with different interests. They are not unlike my great-grandfather’s first customer: I’ve got to stand up for myself, because I can’t trust you to do that.  The great theologian Walter Bruggemann refers to this as an attitude emerging from a conviction that we live in a universe of scarcity.  There isn’t enough to go around.  If people are going to be healed through the power of Jesus, we are the only ones who can do that.  If there’s a harvest to be sold, I need to make sure that I get my share if the proceeds, because no one else is looking out for me.   This is a scary world filled with limitations; it’s a threatening kind of place, and I need to be sure to defend what’s mine
Jesus has some harsh words for those whose actions are motivated by fear – some of his harshest words in the Bible: If you place a stumbling block before people, if your hand or your foot or your eye causes you to stumble – better that disaster befall you, or your body parts, than that you in some way block others from the deepening of life that I have to offer.  Jesus in this passage is actually a lot harsher than Pope Francis has been this past week.  Pope Francis has been emphasizing a “culture of care,” but Jesus goes right to the consequences of a culture of fear, of suspicion, of self-protection and self-defense -- and they are not positive consequences!    Better that you get out of the way than that you limit the prospects of others for new life – whether those others be prisoners on death row, immigrants to a new country, the poor and disenfranchised, or those whose beliefs differ from yours.

If we are not going to be people trapped by a vision of scarcity, limited by our fears and barricade against what we see as threats in this world, than who are we going to be?  How are we going to be FOR Jesus – who says to his disciples, those followers so confused about their role and so convinced that they should come out on top – Jesus who says, “Those who are not against us are for us.”  Look for possibility; look for hope. Align yourself with a conviction that we are a people of abundance, not scarcity – that there is enough love, enough healing, enough care, enough life – for all.  In  fact, there is more than enough – there is an abundance! 
Wasn’t that the approach of my great-grandfather’s second customer?  “Do the best you can for me.” He came to work that day in a spirit of openness and trust, prepared to think the best of his customer, prepared to see grain business and famer as allies.  And didn’t that in turn bring out the best in my great-grandfather toward his customer?  Both men saw this as an opportunity for life – for profit, of course, because it was a business transaction, but also for kindness and fairness and dignity,

Isn’t that what the Pope has been talking about all week?  The Catholic St. Ignatius, founder and father of the Pope’s Jesuit order, tells us always to presume the best in the other. Marcus Borg, author of our study, tells us always to anticipate and pursue what is life-giving. 
And Jesus tells us today: Have salt.  Be at peace with one another.  Preserve the best in and for one another. Season and flavor your relationships with life, with hope, with caring – with possibility at its very best.  Do the best you can for one another. Amen.               

[1] Micah D. Keil’s Commentary in Working Preacher for September 27, 2015.
[2] Amy Oden’s Commentary in Working Preacher for September 30, 2012.

Friday, September 25, 2015

Friday Five: Push or Pull

Today's Friday Five comes from Deb:
"I am fortunate to have some great encouragers in my life. The ones who know me the best are great at knowing when to challenge me, and when to just chill and let me figure it out myself. SO… think about the encouragers and challenges in YOUR life and tell us…"
1. After achieving a goal, do you set the bar higher, or rest on your laurels?
I usually set the bar higher.  But I've got nothing against taking a break.
2, Which is better: a kick in the pants or a hug and a cuppa?
Oh, definitely the hug.  I am not particularly responsive to criticism.  I mean, I make mid-course corrections all the time in response to feedback, but you can make it a lot easier on both of it if you have something positive to say.
3. What’s your baseline motivation? Fear? Competition? Not getting caught? ;)
I am pretty damn competitive.  But that driving force has little place in my life these days.
4. When you’re facing a big challenge, do you need to talk it out, or puzzle it out yourself?
I need to talk it out, at length and with anyone who might have something to contribute.
5. Who is in your corner – always? Who helps you achieve more than you imagined you could?  (You don’t have to give names)
I have a couple of mentors and colleagues who are always hugely supportive.  And my kids ~ they're amazing.  My daughter at 28 is insightful, compassionate, and articulate ~ often my go-to person whether I'm moving forward or completely stuck.
I don't have a bonus piece of art of music.  Just the number . . .