Thursday, July 28, 2005

Grief and Santa Tchotckes

As my congregation struggles to come to terms with its impending closure, one member remarked that it feels like a death in the family. This is even more true than she realizes, I think. The feelings folks are expressing are absolutely representative of the various manifestations of grief I've seen in bereaved parishoners over the years.

Guilt: If only I/we had done something differently, this would not have happened.
Blaming: It's THEIR fault, THEY could have stopped/prevented this from happening.
Minimizing: It's for the best. She was suffering. She lived a good long life.
Globalizing: I'll never love again. This was the only place for me.

And . . . Fighting over the Deceased Possessions: The daughter of a member who died last year called to see if she could come get a couple of Christmas decorations her mother had bought for the church in the past. I said sure. She came over and was distressed to discover that one particular item was missing. I remember the item well. It was a tiny sleigh with Santa and his reindeer. More than once I had to remind these reindeer that they were only allowed in the fellowship hall--not in the sanctuary, not in the narthex. I have a big feeling the reindeer were set free into the wider world last Christmas when a group did a big purge of the Christmas decoration bins.

For the still grieving daughter, though, this missing-in-action tchotcke was symbolic of the many perceived slights to her mother at the hands of other church members over the years. And of course, in her mind it is these same members whose selfish, power-grasping, unchristian behavior has brought low the church her mother loved more than life itself.

Ah well.

Wednesday, July 27, 2005

It's not easy, bein' green

Last night we took the church kids to Oaks Park, an old fashioned amusement park down on the Willamette River. (More like a permanent fair midway than like a slick Six-Flags type place.) Since last summer my own kids have somehow graduated from kiddie rides and now want to explore more thrilling possibilites.

Sisters and Brothers, hear my testimony: My inner ear, she ain't what she used to be. I, who in my prime could fly on the tiltiest, spinniest, twistiest, twirliest rides that ever graced a theme park, found myself staggering off the Tilt-A-Whirl and lurching toward the nearest coke machine for some stomach settling elixer. I haven't turned that particular shade of green since a stormy English Channel crossing the winter I was sixteen.

Oh well, there's still the bumper cars--at least till my back gives out.

Monday, July 25, 2005

Is there a Pastor in the House?

Last week's Harry Potter extravaganza in the blogging world made me wonder: Is there a particular Hogwarts house that would produce the best pastors? Here's what I'm thinking.

Ravenclaw: You delight in the intellectual aspects of ministry: the study of theology, the crafting of sermons, the assimilation of vast knowledge regarding church history, polity and tradition. Your study is your sanctuary--it is here that you feel the presence of God. Your keen mind penetrates to the heart of ethical and ecclessial dilemmas. However, the relational aspects of ministry can be hard for you. You have to drag yourself out of your study to connect to people on an emotional rather than intellectual level. You have a limited amount of social energy, so you have to focus it carefully and pace yourself. Alternate careers: Professor, author, librarian.

Hufflepuff: Hufflepuffs loooved their Practical Theology classes at seminary. Your greatest delight in ministry is the actual tasks of ministry: pastoral care, visitation, organizing programs, recruiting volunteers, managing the organization. You know where the church furnace is located and could fix it in a pinch. You are generally quite popular with your congregation for your hard work and availability. However, your focus on the practicalities of ministry sometimes keeps your from seeing a grander vision, a bigger picture. Your congregations will be solid and healthy, but will seldom make the news for taking daring stands or developing cutting edge ministries. Some folks will exploit your willingness to work hard, so you have to guard against early burnout. Alternate careers: Director of community center, chef.

Gryffindor: You are attracted to the ministry because it offers a context for your need to be involved in a heroic quest: Defending the Truth, Working for Justice, Spreading the Gospel; Building God's Kingdom. You are willing to take a stand, be part of an embattled minority, sacrifice everything for The Cause. Your ministry is inspiring. As a charismatic leader you can motivate your people to great undertakings. However, you are easily dillusioned with the petty realities that inevitably crop up in congregational and denominational life. The day-to-day routine of running a church can make you tired and frustrated. You have absolutely no patience with church politics or polity and can become enraged when you run smack into it while on your quest for Truth and Justice. Alternate careers: missionary, non-profit founder, social work

Sytherin: You have incredible entrepenuerial skills. You look at a swath of farmland on the edge of the suburbs and get that Megachurch gleam in your eye. You can size up a congregation or community and immediately identify who has resources and connections that can be tapped for the success of your latest project. You may scorn denominational structures and rules, but you know how to use them to promote your mission---or to take down your enemies. Members of your church are grateful for the growth and money you bring to your congregations, but deep down they may feel that you don't care about them personally. They may hesitate to approach you with problems, feeling that you only want to hear "success stories". Alternate careers: business owner, Archbishop.

Sunday, July 24, 2005

Do not go gentle into that good night

At our congregational meeting today, the congregation voted to petition Presbytery for closure. Those if favor of this option were the clear majority, but it was not a unanimous decision. It was interesting to me that those who were the most angry and upset seemed angry not because they had a burning passion to transform our church. They were hopping mad at the trustees of Presbytery for denying us permission to sell the manse. It was more of a "turf" thing than a ministry thing.

Here's my take. As we were going through the process of deciding whether or not we should ask to sell the manse, I thought to myself: "Even if we sell the manse, there's still a 75% chance we won't be here five years from now. But if we don't sell the manse, there's a 100% chance we won't be here five years from now." In my mind, it seemed worth the gamble. But then, I've invested 6+ years of ministry here, I love my folks, I love our legacy in this neighborhood. I'm far from objective on this question. Maybe that's why our system is set up the way it is: so that there is a group of less emotionally entangled brains making that final judgement call.

If I'd sensed that there was real energy and passion for congregational change, I would have encouraged my folks to fight the trustees' decision. But I don't see fighting just because we want control and autonomy. That seems wrong for a group who supposedly model themselves on fore-mothers and fathers who, "held all things in common--no one said that what they had was their own . . ."

After we'd voted on the motion to close, someone rose to make a motion that we write a letter urging Presbytery to explore creative possibilities for new kinds of ministry in this place. This motion passed overwhelmingly. Let's hope someone out there is listening.

Friday, July 22, 2005

It's a Jungle Out There

My kids are attending their third VBS of the summer. (Occupational hazzard for PK's, perhaps.) Our church did Around the World in Five Days in which three of the five countries involved exotic animals and terrain. At summer conference, they focused on the Creation story which also involved much reference to the animal kingdom. And this week they are attending a friends' church that is doing A Prayer Safari.

Yesterday as we were driving home from the pool, my five year old daughter piped up, "Mommy? Why is Vacation Bible School always about the jungle?"

Why indeed? Is it just barely possible that we have gone over the top with curricular themes, especially for VBS? Do kids remember the God stuff, or this year's gimmick? Would it be so outrageous to say, this year's VBS theme is The Parables of Christ, and leave it at that? No jungle backdrop, no bible-totin' cokepokes, no talking tomatoes? Are we afraid the bible isn't exciting enough all on it's own? Seems to me with giants, angels, parting seas, multiplying bread, and tongues of fire our own material is pretty good without dragging in cheap special effects. I don't want to offend any curriculum writers out there, but what's up with the jungle?

Wednesday, July 20, 2005

All Things Work Together for Good

I've been working with this Romans text for preaching Sunday when it suddenly hit me: part of my deep anxiety about the church's decision is that I have it in my mind that there is ONE right answer to our dilemma. I've been operating on the premise that if we fail to discern this one right answer and act on it, we will have failed some cosmic test and divine remonstrance will be in store for us all.

But-- all things works together for good for those who love him and are called according to divine purpose . . .

What if this means that, in difficult and complex situations like this there are any number of ways that God can work God's purpose out. We need to be faithful in trying to discern God's word to us in any given situation, but God's purpose is not dependent upon us "getting it right". This isn't like the Monty Python scene where you misguess the airspeed velocity of an unladen swallow and you're thrown off a cliff. This isn't like Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone where one wrong move in a game of Wizard's chess means Voldemort wins.

Maybe the decision to close the church is totally the wrong decision: God will still be at work. Maybe we'll decide to try to hang on and fight back when we should realize that our work is done and step aside for something new to happen here. God will still be at work. Maybe the truth is: we can't get this wrong because in Christ all things work together for good for God's people. God's not going to cut us off if our discernment process falters. Nothing, not even a questionable decision on a complex dilemma, can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus.

Tuesday, July 19, 2005

From the Mixed up Files . . .

This Sunday my congregation meets to vote on whether to petition Presbytery for closure. No one is happy, but there seems to be a sense of moving toward decision and resolution. BUT today I talked to a Presbytery staff member, (not the one usually in charge of churches in my region of presbytery, but everyone else is on vacation), and he asked didn't I think that was a little premature. Were we sure we'd thought through all the options? Had we considered fighting the Trustee's decision not to grant us permission to sell the church manse.

So now I'm confused. Should I be encouraging my folks to fight harder? Are we giving up too quickly? I thought I was pretty clear on this, but now I'm feeling guilty.

AND I've been encouraged to look into an interim possibility opening in our Presbytery--we'd have to move but it's at the beach! I think I could live with that for a year or so! But is this really a call or is this just me wanting to escape this Chinese water torture, "to close or not to close" marathon?

Yikes. We J's are not good at limbo and living with multiple options. Maybe I should brew up some Felix Felicis!!

Friday, July 15, 2005

Funny church conference moment #2

Today we had our closing worship service just before lunch. It was much better than the opening one: the leader had done all sorts of things to make the service inclusive of children and my two each had parts. The high point of the service was communion. We received by intinction so me and the kids filed into the aisle when it was our turn. With people coming in from the row across the aisle as well, my daughter and I got separated from my son so that he was ahead of us reaching the communion servers. There seemed to be a delay of some sort. I got a bit nervous. My son was bowed intently over his piece of bread. Was he deep in prayer? I thought this unlikely, so I craned my neck to see what was happening. I leaned forward in time to hear him mutter, "There's GREEN stuff in my bread!"

Indeed there was. A member of a local congregation had lovingly prepared homemade bread for the sacrament: whole wheat flecked with fresh rosemary---which my kid slowly and carefully picked out of his piece before eating it. So----it's Body of Christ, yes; Rosemary, no. Got that???

Monday, July 11, 2005

Funny church conference moment #1

The kids and I are at our Presbytery's annual summer conference. (T didn't come along--it's not really his thing . . .) Most conference logistics snafus go largely unnoticed by participants, but I happen to be on the planning team for this one, so I can tell when something "off script" is happening. Our Presbytery is quite large geographically, and many people travel long hours to get to the college campus where the conference happens. The conference starts on a Sunday evening to give folks plenty of time to make the trip. We try to keep that night simple: registration, dinner, introductions of staff and speakers, and a brief opening worship service. This is about all folks can take in after travelling all day or after doing church, frantically packing, and making a shorter journey.

Last night's worship was supposed to last 30 minutes. At the twenty minute mark, our keynoter got up to speak. Twenty minutes later he was still holding forth. The sermon may have been quite good, for all I know. I was no longer alert enough to tell. My daughter was asleep in the seat next to me. A quick glance around the room betrayed many of our Presbytery's finest staring slack-jawed in the general direction of the pulpit.

The preacher himself seemed to be aware that this thing was taking WAAAAAY too long. (My theory: he grabbed an old sermon out of the barrel shortly before leaving his home on the east coast and did not take the time on the plane trip west to check if it fit the time perameters we sent him for this service several weeks ago.) But I guess he's not the "edit-on-the-fly" type, so he kept going.

My seven year old son was not sleeping or slack-jawed. He was writhing in agonies. He turned back-flips in his seat. He whimpered. He lay on his belly on the floor and tied my shoe laces together. He checked to see if his seat cushion could be used as a floatation device. Still the sermon went on.

Finally, after fifty minutes of service and thirty minutes of sermon, the preacher said "Amen" and headed toward his seat. At which point my son's voice rang loud and clear through the auditorium, "He's FINALLY done!"

You know what they say about preacher's kids . . . .

Thursday, July 07, 2005

Grandma's Eggplant

My Dad's mom was Russian Jewish. When she came to visit she always carried bundles of delicacies from New York that we could not find in the any of the small, southern towns in which we landed. This was WAAAAAAAAAAY before they sold Bagels at the local Safeway. She also came ready to prepare my Dad's favorite foods which my mom, descendant of many generations of Ohio Protestants, couldn't quite pull off.

One of these was her eggplant spread. You roast a whole eggplant until it is completely, entirely slimy and sqishy. (Poke holes in it to let the steam out.) Then you let it cool, scoop it out of the skin, chop it with onion and mix in olive oil and salt. Take a slice of rye bread, the darker the better, slather it with this stuff and eat it.

We all loved this stuff. However, it looks like mucilage and it has a strong eggplanty flavor that is something of an acquired taste even for those positively disposed toward eggplant. And it was nothing like anything our neighbors were eating. It was not a company dish. We made it for ourselves and enjoyed it privately. Why expose Grandma and her eggplant to misunderstanding, rejection and ridicule? Why make our friends uncomfortable by offering them something they almost certainly would not like?

Once, however, we happened to have a guest hanging around when we made a batch. To our surprise and shock she liked it and wanted the recipe. But this was an accident and we did not test market any further.

It occurs to me that many church members feel about Church something close to what we felt about Grandma's eggplant. We loved it. It was a family tradition. But we knew it looked weird to outsiders so we didn't push it. We were blown away when an "outsider" actually liked it, sure that this must be a total fluke.

In fact, some church growth experts exhort us to expunge any trace of eggplanty-ness from church life. The key to success is to get rid of anything idiocyncratic or odd. Jettison anything that is not immediately accessible and enjoyable: old hymns, prayers of confession, creeds, terms like Advent, Trinity, Ascension, Atonement, or Incarnation. Include nothing that one must learn love over time.

Perhaps this is what Paul was refering to when he claimed, "For I am not ashamed of the gospel!"

And in case you were wondering: yes, the eggplant can be cooked much more quickly in the microwave, but the resulting spread will have much less complexity and richness of flavor. Sort of like certain praise choruses . . . . .

Tuesday, July 05, 2005

On the other hand

On the other hand, the neighborhood pub is a thriving, happening place. It is a block down the street from the church and the grocery. It has also been there as long as anyone can remember, under many different owners. It was one of the first properties purchased and transformed by the now massive McMennamin Brothers' empire. It does microbrewing on premesis, serves decent food, is fairly kid friendly, and closes early enough on weeknights not to annoy the neighbors too much.

So what gives? To at least one of my predecessors, the answer would be simple. Sin is popular. I've been told that one of our pastors in the 1940's came to us after serving a church in a rowdy lumbering town in eastern Oregon. He was fearless and uncompromising and used to stand outside the door of the (then) tavern and exhort its patrons to turn from the evils of drink and embrace the gospel. Perhaps this was effective in the short term, but it appears the drinkers are going to win in the end.

But really, alcohol aside, what happens in a night at the local pub for dozens of folks in this neighborhood that apparently doesn't happen for them in a Sunday morning at church? Is the fellowship more genuine? The acceptable topics of conversation less limited? Is the bartender a more adept pastoral counsellor than most pastors? Is it that, after a few beers, anyone is welcome to hold forth in grand sermonic fashion? That your kids can crawl under the table and play UNO and no one looks askance? Maybe.

BUT, will they pray for you when you're in trouble? Will they organize a casserole brigade when you're sick? Is there anything there that is truly trancendant? In fact, would the place even be there still if it had to be totally self-sufficient instead of being one part of the most successful microbrew/pub chain in the Northwest?

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

Monday, July 04, 2005

hymns and a quart of milk

Porcelli's grocery is closed. Doors locked. No word if it will re-open as a store or be knocked down for more condos. Why is this significant? Porcelli's grocery and my little church have stood kitty corner across from each other at the intersection of Virginia and Nebraska for at least seventy years, probably more.

The church has always been Presbyterian. The store has passed through several hands-- the original owners whose names no one remembers, the Italian Porcellis who gave it it's current name, the Koreans who owned it when we moved to the neighborhood, and the semi-retired dentist who bought it for his wife to run as a sideline. It was a real live corner grocer for years carrying a little of everything one could need. When I moved here it was more of a convenience store--not good for much but ice cream and tampons, as one neighbor remarked near the end of that particular incarnation. The dentist tried to reinvent it as a deli/wine bar. But in the end it appears that no amount of reinventing could fight the inexorable tide of Mega-marts, Trader Joes, and upscale specialty grocers spreading like english ivy across the Portland landscape. Everyone waxes nostalgic about the corner grocer, but no one, it seems, actually shops there.

Sort of like the little neighborhood church. It's picturesque in a shabby, Grandma Moses kind of way. But, like the corner grocer, it's an institution time seems to have passed by. The folks at my church seem oddly comforted by Porcelli's demise. Some burden of guilt seems to have at least partially lifted. Like Porcelli's they tried over the years to reinvent themselves. Like Porcellis it wasn't enough in the end. It wouldn't have mattered if our craft had been more seaworthy. The tsunami would have swept us away anyway.