To whom shall we go?

I go to church almost every week. I go even though I don’t always know why we are all there and I am often disappointed with what I experience–or don’t experience–in church.

Today as I sat in church, at Trinity Lutheran Church in Moorhead, MN (that’s my home church, though I end up in a lot of different churches) I worried I would experience that again. I sat wondering what it was I was expecting, and often don’t find. I think what I often miss is the glimpse of something luminous or holy or sacred–something outside of every day life that touches on something larger. Something that both drives me deep within and also lifts my attention to the world I am called to care for.

Today, I went hoping to hear good news proclaimed in a time of national tragedy. I also went as study–since I am also a pastor, sociologically and ecclesiologically, I wanted to see how this church would handle 20 kids dead (and 8 adults) across the country in Newtown, Connecticut in the middle of the Holidays.

I just prayed they wouldn’t ignore it, and drone on with the words we always say. And then this happened: We started the words of confession and forgiveness, and I heard the voices of the table full of children next to me, saying the words in that confession: “We are truly sorry” as I sat, thankful for their voices, thankful we were all in this room together in a posture of prayer, thankful they knew the words by memory because someday they might need them. As the words of forgiveness were said, I looked up and saw the line of water in the stained glass window behind the altar, that runs like a lifeline from a depiction of baptism to the cross.

Then we stood up to greet the Gospel, and we were all singing the oh-so-familiar words ”Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.” Those words take on new meaning when you are trying to figure out how to make sense of things like death that comes too early.

Sermon time–I saw all the chatter from my pastor-friends, trying to figure out how to address this tragedy, or if they should. I watched to see what would happen here. Pastor Matt McWaters first sat with the children and acknowledged that it was a dark time, and had been a hard week for many people. Then he asked them to help by doing three things: hugging their parents a little tighter, laughing and playing a little wilder, and telling their parents “I love you.”

I could see these children, paying attention to the gravity of the situation. They promised to hug, and laugh and love like they knew it was important.

Then Pastor Matt got behind the pulpit and, visibly shaken, preached his way into the good news of Christ until tears came down his face as he named the stupid things people might say at times like this, like that “God must have needed another angel” or “She’s home now” and just nailed those ridiculous unhelpful sentiments right to the cross and said it is not true–that God does not cause evil to happen, and reminding us that Christ always came that we might have life, and that always wins, and always comes in the dark places.

Amen.

During communion I heard the words of the song around me, talking about healing, as I made room for the man with his walker. I don’t know what healing looks like for this man, but it is moving nonetheless. I was reminded that these are the hurts we can see–how much more is inside each of us as we reach out our hands and hear the words spoken to us: This is the body of Christ, and it is given for you. After communion we hear words of blessing and hope–that at this meal we share we might be strengthened and kept in God.

Last week someone from The Project F-M book club said, “Fake it ‘til you make it.” She was talking about how she started going to church with her grandmother, and wasn’t sure why she went either, but now it has become important to her.

And then there are the words of my friend, Pastor Matthew Bolz-Weber who says, “The liturgy* works. You can’t say when or how, and you can’t force it, but it does work.”

If I didn’t go every week, and say those same words every week I might miss it. On this day, those words we repeat over and over and over had a different meaning.

Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. Alleluia.

*liturgy is a churchy word that can variously be defined. One way to define it is that it is the prescribed ‘form’ for public worship, talking about the order of things, and what words are said when, and what is included, especially in the context of a worship service with Holy Communion.

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Still praying

A man once told me that the last time he entered a church was forty years ago. He was a teenager, but folks in his church thought he had an “unnatural attraction” to his best friend. They held an intervention for him. When the intervention “didn’t work” he was kicked out of the church, and didn’t return for 40 years.

One day, he knelt in tears at a railing near the altar while we prayed. The altar and railing looked similar to the church where they had prayed over him as a teenager. Forty years later when he had found his way back, we prayed for the walls he had built up to fall. We prayed for him to have the grace to forgive the people who had harmed him. We prayed for peace for him as he found his way back to church, even though it is sometimes hard to be there, with triggers that remind him of that earlier time, and fears that it will happen again.

I am still praying. I just heard a news story about a teenager named Lennon in Barnesville, MN, who was supposed to be confirmed last month at his Catholic church. He was allegedly not confirmed after posting on his facebook wall that he was against the marriage amendment that failed to pass in Minnesota on election day. The vote would have changed the state’s constitution to define marriage as between one man and one woman. Lennon voiced his opposition to that measure. You can read more about that here.

So I am still praying.

I have an uncle who is gay. I don’t see him much, but he was at my grandmother’s funeral, and told me he had not been inside a church in at least a couple of decades. He asked me, “What is the point of these buildings? What use do they serve?”

The Barna group did a study that talked about the most common reasons that young people don’t go to church. The most common responses had to do with the church being irrelevant to their lives, anti-homosexual, antagonistic towards science, boring, and judgmental. The research is documented in the book, You Lost Me by David Kinnaman

So I am still praying.  First I  prayed for was that the voices of love and grace and mercy would be louder than the voices of intolerance and judgement. But that is not enough. If I am going to pray, I might as well ask for it all. Now my prayer is this: That we might find a way, as Church to be God’s body–to embody the love and grace of God above all else, and let go of fear, intolerance, and judgement.

I want to be able to tell Lennon there is a place for him in this Church, even with his opinions. I want to be able to tell my uncle about the reasons for Church, and not be afraid that his worst fears will be confirmed if he walks back in. I want to know that the man who left forty years ago won’t experience the same pain today. I want to know that this will never happen to another person again. I want young adults to come to church and experience it as a place that recognizes and welcomes their gifts, their questions, their life experiences and their whole selves, including a thinking mind.

We need this not just because I want a church that feels safe for Lennon, my uncle, and others to be themselves, but because the body of Christ needs them too. Those of us who are “in” the church miss out on all the gifts that those “outside” the church have to offer. And as long as there are groups that are “inside” the Church and “outside” the Church, we’re a long way away from God’s vision for this world.

At least as far as I can see.

So I’m still praying.

So…It’s not a Church?

“So, it’s not a church?”

Not exactly.

“But you got a call?”

Yes.

“What is it then?”

It’s an emerging faith community for people in their 20’s and 30’s, generally speaking.

“A….community…so….where does it meet?

Um, bars, coffee shops, a place called The Spirit Room

“So you don’t have an actual place.”

Well, wherever you go, there you are. That’s some kind of place.

“And this is the kind of work you want to do?”

YES!!!!!

These are the kinds of conversations I’ve been having with people—especially people in the church I am finishing up at—about my future work. I’ve just accepted a call to The Project F-M (another question I get: What is ‘FM’? Answer: Fargo-Moorhead) and it seems to be kind of confusing to people. People really wish I would be in a church building apparently. (See my post on “Not a Building” for MY thoughts on that.)

But it turns out there are a whole bunch of people in the world who don’t go into buildings called “churches” and don’t attend events called “worship.” Maybe they did once upon a time, but a really large number of young adults just don’t. (See more about this in my post on Somebody That I Used to Know). There are as many reasons for this as there are people. Some people wandered away from church because it didn’t seem relevant to the rest of their lives. There is too much of a cultural commute to take for them to walk in on a regular basis. Some people don’t believe the things they were taught in the churches they grew up in. Whatever the reasons, there are large groups of people who don’t resonate with ‘church.’

So it makes sense to create other kinds of space—sacred space, maybe—for people who don’t find meaning in conventional churches or worship. Even if that space isn’t one we own, or call “ours.” I am really excited about helping to create that kind of a space and be a part of a community that wants to engage in conversations about God and theology and things that hold deeper meaning to them. Even if we don’t use the word ‘church.’

And hey–for those of you who are in conventional churches, or leading conventional churches–please keep doing what you’re doing. It is a faith community for those who call that place a church home. I know that if you started changing drastically to respond to the needs of the people who are not currently in your churches, then all those people who go to church now would be exiles.

Just find ways to support those others who are currently in exile.

And, you can read more about The Project F-M here. (You can even donate there!)

Titanic

Lookout Frederick Fleet: Is there anyone there? 
6th Officer Moody: Yes, what do you see?
Lookout Frederick Fleet: Iceberg, right ahead!
6th Officer Moody: Thank you.
[hangs up phone[1]

Just seventy-three years ago, Jews were still being killed in Nazi Germany. Forty-five years ago, civil rights in our own country were unavailable to a whole bunch of people. Forty years ago, Women couldn’t be pastors in Lutheran churches. Twenty-five years ago, the ELCA (Evangelical Lutheran Church in America) didn’t exist. None of us had emails until about seventeen years ago. About that time, you couldn’t take communion in a Lutheran church if you were a child under a certain age. Three years ago, people who understood themselves as gay and wanting to be in a relationship couldn’t be pastors in the ELCA. This is all true.

I have to remind myself of these things.

I have to remind myself because sometimes I get really worried about the church. I have read articles that talk about how the church has three years to figure things out. Steve Knight talks about the age and number of baby boomers and the trends that show how the dollars in churches will decline.

I am haunted by the ideas in that article. I look around and feel like we’re all on the Titanic, (at least the movie version) and some people are choosing to  keep eating and playing music, pretending the ship isn’t going down. Others are running around trying to save each other, with great lines: “Music to drown by. Now I know I’m in first class.” And this great line: “Incredible. There’s Smith and he’s standing there and he’s got the iceberg warning in his hand, and he’s ordering more speed.”  And, to someone who has just decided to quote Psalm 23: “Could you walk a little faster through that valley?” I get really worried about how everything still seems like business as usual, even as we cut programs and staff, in every expression of the Church.

After Steve Knight wrote this blog, one friend tweeted something like, “I get that we have three years to figure this out, I’m just not sure what I’m supposed to do.” Therein lies the problem. Dollars have been designated for certain things; commitments have been made. Rules and guidelines have been set with much thought and prayer, and so they must be followed. People voted on all these things, so changing anything in a system this large is…well, it’s like the Titanic.

So, when a pastor, bishop,  seminary professor,  seminary president, or even a pastoral intern (like myself) wakes up in the morning, knowing the church may be dying, WHAT DO WE DO? Attempts are made from the margins, and if they can get close enough to people who feel empowered to make a different kind of decision than what has been dictated and preceded by others, then change happens.  There are little pockets of hope everywhere.  It takes a lot of work in a slow-moving machine, and it is hard to know what the first step is. Or the step after that, or the step that follows the one after you meet a brick wall. Time I fear we don’t have.

And it is on days like this that I have to remind myself that seventy-three years ago, millions of Jews were dying. Fifty years ago, some people couldn’t sit at lunch counters and white people didn’t share bathrooms with non-white people in this country. Forty years ago, women couldn’t be pastors. Twenty-five years ago, none of us had the internet. Four years ago, my friends who understand themselves as gay and also called to ministry could not be in relationships that fit their identity as humans. That is all different now, and these changes were TITANIC.  It seemed impossible that life could be any different; that the structures that held these things in place could be changed. But they did change, because of a lot of faith, courage and persistence. Even when people’s lives were on the line for affecting change.

And though my life is not on the line,  that is the hope I have to practice. As Church, I hope we can notice where God shows up and how God is working through people, and make room for that, even if it doesn’t follow the precedence and procedures set up by well-intentioned people just like us in an earlier time.  And if we don’t, well, God will still work.

I get that it is Easter. I believe God has conquered death and raises all things that encounter deaths, big and small. And I also believe new life never looks the same as what died. But I’m still trying to avoid death. At the end of Titanic (the movie), when they’re working on rescuing people, they’re rowing through those frozen waters checking bodies for signs of life.  An officer says, “we waited too long.” Can we tell a different story?

So, for those 10 people who read this, if YOU were a pastoral intern kept up at night with these concerns about the Church, what would YOU do in the morning? There must be something, because Jack (from Titanic) says so. He tells Rose: “What I was thinking was, what could’ve happened to this girl to make her think she had no way out?” Beyond advice for me, what might we say to other conversation partners? (pastors, bishops, people in congregations, people who run seminaries, people who write for the Church, people who work in the Church who are and are not rostered.) What should they do tomorrow?


[1] All Titanic (1997) quotes from http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0120338/quotes

Somebody that I used to know…

Yesterday morning before church I found myself between these two worlds, as I stood in the doorway of my colleague’s office at church, chatting about the upcoming worship service. His thirteen year old daughter lay sprawled out on the couch, not quite awake, listening to tunes on her mac.  Specifically, she was listening to this song called “Somebody That I Used to Know” by Gotye. 

Then the organ started up. In one ear, I could hear the organ strains of “Lift High the Cross” while in the other, this song about somebody that I used to know.

I don’t really know how the pastor’s daughter thinks about hymns played on an organ. I didn’t ask her because it was far too early in the morning for her to consider answering me. But I wonder if it isn’t similar to the words of the song: Somebody that I used to know. And if it is the organ that is presenting the story of the cross…does the person on the cross also have potential to become somebody that I used to know? Or, somebody that I never knew?

My hope is that there is space in the Church for some people to figure out how to speak the language people are speaking, including the way music speaks. And by that, I don’t mean that hymns need to go away (though I think it is worth asking questions like: does this song still speak to how we think about God, or life, or the human condition?) And I don’t mean just putting guitars and drums up in front of the church, especially if it means singing songs within the Christian praise genre—(because I would ask the same question: Does this song speak to how we think about God, or life or the human condition?) But rather trying to figure out how music might speak about  faith and proclaim good news from and into each context.

My friend Michael Larson (musician) has some smart things to say about music in the church. Check it out here Michael Larson, “God Concept, God Song”

Be

One night I had a dream I was in church, and there were all these older people there, dressed up: women in skirts and suits, with ruffled shirts peaking through. The old kind of ruffles. Panty hose and sensible shoes with small chunky heels. The shoes often match. The colors were things like red and purple.  Some wore hats. Men in suits and ties.

And then there were these other people there, younger people, dressed in their normal clothes; street clothes. Urban clothes. Perhaps some would say “hipster” clothes. And one more thing. All of them had clothing that had some kind of hole in it, exposing some part of the body that is not normally exposed.

And they were standing around this church, not flaunting who they were. Not actively trying to resist an older generation. And not hiding. They all looked slightly sheepish but with a sort of stance like, “This is who I am. I don’t know how to be anything else.” And the two kinds of people did not talk. It seems to me the older folks in their dated Sunday Best stood in twos or threes, glancing briefly around them—trying not to be obvious, at the individuals who stood there being who they were. Looking down at the bulletin. Trying to act like it wasn’t weird that they were there.

And I stood right in the middle, between the two groups of people, trying to explain to the one about the other. Trying to explain both.

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Greek to me

The other day I was telling a friend a story about the credence table being removed from the chancel area. I stopped after I said those words and said, “and I can’t believe those words just rolled off my tongue so easily.”

I often fight the use of jargon in churches. I understand it serves a purpose—when church geeks (ordained or not) talk to other church geeks, it is faster to say “the credence table” than “the table we put the extra communion elements on” and easier to say “chancel area” than “the area up by the altar.” But when we use these words in a broader context, I believe we put walls up and leave people out. There is a whole foreign language you can encounter inside the church.

In the church I work in, I often give announcements about things people can find in the space-outside-the-space-we-worship. In most of the English-speaking world, you would call this a lobby. In the church world, you call this a narthex. And every time I have to say that word, I pause, point, and someone from the congregation says “narthex.” I usually follow that up with saying “the narthex, otherwise known as the Lobby.” Yes, it is the narthex. But it is not because I’m an intern that I pause before saying that word. It is not because I don’t know the word. It is because I want to make sense to people who were not born in the church.

The church can seem like an alternate reality that you have to go through a wardrobe to get to, or run your cart into the space between two train stops. Maybe a tornado. That’s the idea you might get if you hear people talking about stuff in the Narthexes, the new-colored paraments, (colored banners that are on the altar and pulpit, or perhaps church decorations in general) vestments (what the minister wears) fair linens, (uh, its one of the many cloths that have something to do with communion) chasubles, (Otherwise known as the Christmas tree skirt-like garment some ministers wear during communion) Patten (plate), chalice (cup)…the list is endless; I only have about half of it down. While my friend says our liturgy professor would be impressed with the ways that credence table and chancel tumble out of my mouth these days, I know I have far more to learn before I’m able to decently converse with those who are the keepers of the liturgical language. Thankfully, that is not my goal. My goal is to make sense to people when I talk to them about church, and God.

I get that the church is called to be something different, to live into God’s kingdom. Maybe it is like Hogwarts, Oz or Narnia. That would be kind of cool. I like the time I spend in those fantasy lands when I read. But if we follow the example of Christ, the church is also called to meet people where they are. Is it really that important to tell them to go to the narthex? Or can we meet people in the lobby?

There will be those who want to keep the language because it makes it sacred—separates the holy from the rest of life. I am more interested in pointing to how God is at work in all things, making all of life holy. I hope that what we do in church reminds us of all that is sacred in the world. So it makes sense to me to use language that makes sense to people, whenever possible. Sometimes it makes sense to teach people new vocabulary. And often it makes sense to just use words we all know.