Monday, May 22, 2017

Contemporary Churches: A Review



What does it mean to be the church in the early decades of the 21st century?  Can we expect the church to survive the various changes in society and culture--or will the church fall by the wayside, no longer relevant, no longer necessary?  These are the questions that animate Lou Kavar's brief volume examining the state of the church and the prospect for its future.

At core, Kavar's book is a theological statement.  In the second chapter he points to the centrality of death and resurrection to the Christian story, and suggests that the church itself, as configured and realized today, may indeed be going through death throes.  "We are facing the death of the institutional church as we know it," he writes.   (36)  And those of us who have valued the church over the years, are grieving, grieving the loss of an institution that has provided us with nurture and purpose. 

In a very helpful review of the Kubler-Ross stages of grief, he provides concrete examples of how Christians are exhibiting denial, anger, and so on.  I especially appreciate what he writes about how bargaining is often expressed by distraught church folks: "If we get back to basics, return to our traditions, or start a contemporary service and have better music, or preach without a manuscript, or don't preach at all, then we'll grow again." (37)  He offers up a choice phrase when he speaks of the spirituality of bereavement, a spirituality, he says,  that the church of today needs to embrace.

Kavar doesn't leave us at the grave without consolation and hope.  He goes on to speak of the possibility of resurrection.  In particular he argues that the church needs to be willing to embrace its role as a spiritual community.  While that seems on the surface to be a no-brainer, Kavar makes a convincing case in pointing out how often the church has forgotten that as its primary focus.  "[T]he transformation of a congregation from business as usual to a spiritual community," he writes, "requires the deliberate inclusion of a spiritual focus to every aspect of the life of the church."  (83) 

Kavar's book is filled with illustrations drawn from real congregations and their struggles. And while it is not a cookbook (How to Save Your Church in Ten Easy Steps), he does include many practical suggestions.

This is the sort of book that would provide a good basis for congregational study.  It is very accessible, and at points very provocative.  It even has a touch of the poetic, as his final sentences illustrate:  "The Spirit of God is fire and wind as well as a still small voice.  The Spirit animates with laughter, love, frivolity and also soothes with blessed quietness.  Wise teachers and guides within congregations simply find ways to point out what's already there."  On that front, Kavar succeeds. 

Disclosure of Material Connection:  I received this book free from the author and/or publisher through Speakeasy blogging book review network.  I was not required to write a positive review.  The opinions I have expressed are my own.  I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal trade Commission's 16 CFR, Part 255 

Monday, May 15, 2017

Move Over, Friend!

I have been giving a lot of thought to something I read last week in a blog post on the BTS Center website.  The post is titled "What Do We Mean When We Say 'All Are Welcome'?"  It is written by a transgendered, black UCC pastor by the name of Lawrence Robinson.  After a very probing set of questions, Robinson concludes his post with this:  "When we say all are welcome we aren't merely announcing that anyone is welcome to become one of us.  Instead we are proclaiming that we want all others to come in and help all of us to change--to help all of us to grow in love acceptance and community."

I thought about those words as I sat in the chancel during our second worship service of the morning yesterday, listening to the prelude and watching the congregation as various folks took their seats.  I thought about those words as I watched one couple come in at the very last minute and get ushered to a pew where to women were sitting on the aisle.  Very quickly and graciously, the two women who were already seated moved over to9 make room for the couple, and welcomed them with a warm smile and what I imagine was a kind word.

I know Robinson is talking about far more significant matters than who sits where in the pews, yet how symbolic.  Yes, it's a simple way to start--but it is also a fine way to start!  I have also seen people refuse to move, and watched from afar as latecomers have been forced to climb over them to get to an empty spot in the pew.  I have even see folks visibly grumble as they reluctantly change their seats to make room for a newcomer.

How we welcome people, our willingness to make changes, to make accommodations, to make space, to change seats so to speak, determines whether or not folks feel truly included.

In the early years of one of our predecessor denominations, pews were rented out each year, and folks were seated based according to their ability to pay.  So the well-to-do and privileged had the prime spots.  We have long since abandoned that practice.  But I wonder, have we really made a place in the pews free even now?  Maybe its time we all consider moving over!

(Lawrence Robinson's full blog post can be found at http://www.thebtscenter.org/bearingsblog/)

Monday, May 8, 2017

Just Like a Kid!

We don't have a lot of children in our congregation.  And some Sundays there are none of them are present during worship.  That happened this past Sunday, and so when my Associate invited the children to come forward for the Children's Moment, there was a somewhat awkward pause.  Then she and our liturgist decided they'd go and sit on the chancel steps where the kids usually perch, and soon they were joined by three other adults from the congregation.

Our children's moment usually features a couple of puppets--a crocodile named Chompers and a Walrus named Wendell.  Like their manipulator (me) they love puns--and yesterday was no exception as they tried to explain why Good Shepherd Sunday is called by that name.  "It's a good thing they don't have to pay to be here," said one of the puppets referring to the congregation, "Or folks would say they got fleeced!"  There were both the requisite chuckles and groans.

The children's moment, despite the average age of our congregation being somewhere around 65 or 70, is one of the most loved parts of the service.  Yes, its often a bit silly.  Yes, it involves puppets.  But I think it appeals to the child-like spirit that rests in so many of our parishioners.  As was demonstrated by the step-sitters on Sunday.

"Whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a little child," Jesus once told his followers, " will never enter it."  I'm happy to say I have a congregation made up of women and men who seem, 7 to understand just what Jesus was trying to say. 

(Photo Credit:  Bruce Findley)

Monday, May 1, 2017

Adolescent Theology

Being a congregation located on an island where the average age is sixty-five, means things like infant baptisms and confirmations are few and far between.  So it was a special joy this past Sunday to confirm four young people as they marked an important point on their respective faith journeys.

During the service each of the four offered a statement of faith, a summary of their beliefs at this moment in time.  We asked them to address their understandings of God, Jesus Christ, the Holy Spirit, the Bible, the church and the world.  We offered them the opportunity to express their statements in a variety of ways, using the arts or technology if they wished to express their views.

One of the young people made a video.  Another prepared a Power Point presentation.  A third wrote and delivered a brief speech.  And the fourth confirmand created a drawing to help explain her beliefs.  It was a rich display of adolescent theology!

I don't mean that in a derogatory way.  I'm not saying it was just "kid stuff."  One definition of adolescent speaks of being in the process of developing from a child into an adult.  That's helpful.  The theology on display Sunday was, I trust, in process .  As the four young confirmands grow physically, psychologically, emotionally, I trust they will also be open to growing spiritually.  And if they do, that will most likely lead to some changes in their theological understandings.

But for now, at this moment in time, they shared with us sincere and thoughtful reflections of their faith.  And that can only help each one of us as we continue to develop and grow in our faith.  It is indeed a journey, one that twists and turns and often holds surprises.  But it is a journey we take together--young and old alike!

(Photo:  Sanibel Congregational United Church of Christ 2017 Confirmation Class--with cake! 
Thanks to photographer Bruce Findley)

Monday, April 24, 2017

Canadian Silence

I spent this past weekend with three-hundred and fifty spiritual directors--women and men from many faith traditions who help folks navigate the life of the spirit.  We had all gathered in Toronto for the annual conference of Spiritual Directors International.

It was a well-organized event, with the usual mix of workshops and plenary sessions, keynote presentations and even a bit of music.  But what makes these gatherings relatively unique is the silence, for several times over the course of the gathering we were called into intentional times of silence, intentional times of making space for the Holy.

One of the workshop leaders distributed copies of a poem by May Sarton titled "Beyond Questions."  It is a lovely extended metaphor, drawing a comparison between a nesting bird and the practice of silence (or at least that's how I read it!)  Despite it's title, one stanza asks a powerful question:       
                                                           
                                                            Can I weave a nest for silence
                                                            Weave it of listening
                                                            Listening
                                                            Listening layer upon layer?

I bring many things home from my Canadian sojourn, many leanings, but perhaps the most important thing I carried back across the border is a reminder of the role silence can and does play in my work as a pastor, in my work as as a spiritual director, and beyond that, in my very life.

Enough said.

Monday, April 17, 2017

Shedding Blood: Thoughts on Good Friday

Last Friday after I left our midday Good Friday worship service I went to the local blood donation center and gave a pint.  It was just a coincidence of timing.  I am a regular donor, and it was time for my every other month donation.  But as I left the donation center, I couldn't help but think of the words I had spoken the night before at our Maundy Thursday communion service:  "This is my blood," Jesus told his disciples, "shed for you."

Now make no mistake, I don't have some sort of a messiah complex.  I realize it was my blood, not the blood of Christ that I left behind at the blood bank.  But still, in a strange sort of way, it was Christ's blood--after all, the church is called the body of Christ.

Bear with me, here, and let me play this out a bit.  What better way for us to mark the holiest days of the year than by giving of ourselves in such a potentially life-saving fashion?  That pint of A positive blood, may go to someone who is undergoing surgery, or chronically in need of transfusions, or something else altogether.  But whatever, it may indeed help save a life.

I'm not trying to be the hero of my own story here.  All I did was spend twenty minutes or so giving some blood.  I even go a free t-shirt out of it.  (Bright red, by the way.  It has a watermark of the flag, and it says, "All American Donor."  I guess that's what's meant by being a red-blooded American.)
But seriously--this is something I can do every Good Friday if I'm medically able to do so.  And it is something you can do as well. 

Don't know where to go?  Just click on www.redcrossblood.org and find a donation center near you!

In the name of Christ.  In service to unknown strangers.  How much more holy does it get than that!

Happy Easter!

Monday, April 10, 2017

Etta and Easter: A Tale of Resurrection


Often when I think about resurrection I remember Etta Simpson.  I met her several years ago when I took a group of teenagers and adults from my then congregation to Mound Bayou, Mississippi.  Mound Bayou was the first community founded in this nation by former slaves.  It's located in Bolivar County--one of the poorest counties in the nation.  We'd gone there work on helping restore and old run-down building that was going to be used by the local chapter of the National Council of Negro Women for an afterschool program and day-care center.

Etta Simpson was the President of the Council at the time.  Miss Simpson, as everyone called her, was a retired schoolteacher.  She walked with a cane.  She could have just rested on her laurels and enjoyed her pension, but instead she put in dozens of hours a week to help the children of Mound Bayou.

The old building was an absolute disaster, and we worked hard.  We carried off huge trailer loads of trash and broken furniture.  We ripped down ceilings and painted walls.  We scrubbed and cleaned.  We were pleased with what we has accomplished--but secretly, I wondered if our beginnings would ever get finished.


I should have known better!  For Etta Simpson was a woman of faith.  She knew the truth of resurrection!  And she was determined to see to it that that old building rose up from the rubble!

About nine months after we left Mound Bayou I received a package from there.  With a letter from Miss Simpson.  It seems that since we left, her own life had taken on a measure of uncertainty.

"Dear Pastor Danner," the letter began, "I hope that everything has been going well with you and your congregation and family.  The next week after you left my husband was diagnosed with lung cancer . . . ."  That would seem to be enough to stop most of us in our tracks.  But not Miss Simpson.  Her letter went on: ". . . but he is doing very well at this time.  I want you to know that we members of the National Council do not have enough words to express our gratefulness for the unforgettable gesture that you and our congregation did for us last summer.  It has taken quite a while for us to get the building in shape for use.  We have now completed the restrooms, the reading room, the fellowship hall and the kitchen . . . Give my love to all and may the Lord continue to bestow his wonderful blessing on you and your church family.  With love and thanksgiving, Etta T. Simpson."

I shall always remember Miss Simpson--and what better time to do so than at Easter?