Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Let's Not Forget Egypt

The news has been full of reports about the terrorist attack in Manchester, England.  As well it should be.  We need to be reminded that such things can happen in places and among people who are very much like ourselves.  But somehow the story about the terrorist attack in Egypt has been lost in the shuffle.  Somehow we haven't heard very much about the twenty-nine Coptic Christians who were slaughtered as they made there way across the desert on a youth pilgrimage to the St. Samuel the Confessor monastery.  Both incidents involved numerous young people being killed or injured.  Both incidents were clear acts of hatred and violence. But only one seems to have captured our imaginations here in the West.

Perhaps that is part of the problem.  Perhaps the fact that we can't seem to relate when terrorism strikes in the Middle East is part of why it continues.  Perhaps the fact that we have grown numb to such reports as those that do come out of the region is part of why the problem remains unresolved.

I am not na├»ve.  And I'm not blaming the victims (for we are all victims of terrorism--after all, the whole point of terrorism is to create fear in the wider population).  No, I am simply saying we must be willing to remember that Coptic Christians and Muslims and Israeli Jews and all persons are as valued and treasured in God's sight as people who look like us.

There is a certain amount of irony in the fact that the Egyptian monastery's namesake, St. Samuel the Confessor was also a victim of violence.  He was tortured because he would not accept the basic tenets of another form of Christianity
in the late sixth century.  He was a Christian, tortured by other Christians.  He died because of his faith.  Fourteen hundred years ago.  One wonders when we human beings will ever learn.

Let's not forget Egypt.

(Image:  St. Samuel the Confessor)

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)