Tuesday, January 29, 2013

The church is not a building. Really?

There’s a children’s song, “We Are the Church” that says, “The church is not a building, the church is not a steeple, the church is not a resting place, the church is the people.” It’s a lovely sentiment. Would that it were true.

For many folks, the church is most definitely a building. Despite what we may profess to believe about the church being the people, we give ourselves away when we talk about where we “go to church” or when we say we have a meeting “at the church.”  As the pastor of a church, I push back against this whenever I hear it. I know that the church is not a building. And, I certainly am not called to serve a building. Or am I?

Over the past week, I have dealt with a cold sanctuary and a cantankerous furnace.  I have gone round and round about resolving DSL problems and a lack of internet service to the church offices.  Then there was the issue of no hot water; for some reason the water heater “turned itself off.” Is that even possible? I had to explain to some of our tenants that the broken water fountain they want to drink from is unfixable. I’ve been searching for the best place to buy fluorescent light bulbs in bulk because we have about 50 lights on the fritz throughout the building. On Monday I called the gas company about the odor we could smell on the side of the building and they came and tore the sidewalk up to repair a gas leak. And then, this afternoon I was called to the church because there is flooding in the basement. I discovered where it is coming from when I went into the boiler room and found it filling with water that I have no idea how to stop. All of this in a matter of days.

Holy Trinity is a small congregation with a big old building. A whole lot of our ministry is focused on that building. Something is always going wrong, something always needs attention, and something is always draining our resources, both human and financial. It makes me crazy!

I have to say that the people of Holy Trinity are truly amazing in the way they hang in there and do what has to be done and still manage to do good ministry despite this roadblock that always seems to be standing in their way. But they grow weary of the demands of the building just as much as I do. 

When I first began serving Holy Trinity, we did an in-depth study of the situation. Basically, we were looking at whether it would make more sense to sell the building we’re in and move to a place more manageable, or stay where we are and keep up with the repairs. It made more sense to stay put. So, here we are. 

Of course, the idea we didn’t dare entertain for more than a second was getting out of the building business altogether. I know there are a few churches that have had the courage to do that and I have great admiration for them. Actually, I envy them. If only I could devote as much of my time and energy to doing ministry with people as I do with our building… If only our people could invest their time and money in ministries instead of maintaining a building… If only.

House churches are on the rise -- folks meeting in one another’s homes around a common sense of mission and supporting one another in Christian community without the burden of a building to maintain.  I’m encouraged by this.  Maybe someday Christians in our culture will get over their edifice complex and they’ll really live as if “the church is not a building… the church is the people.” 

Friday, January 25, 2013

I may be wrong

A young mother named Jane knelt at the communion rail with her toddler, Daniel, beside her. I placed the bread in her hand, saying, “The body of Christ, given for you” and then I blessed Daniel. As I moved on, I watched out of the corner of my eye while Jane broke the bread and gave a little piece of it to her son. I stopped in my tracks and returned to her. While she was still kneeling at the rail, I leaned down and whispered in her ear with a tone of righteous indignation, “That is not allowed in the Lutheran Church.” And that’s the last time Jane ever worshiped with us.

I was 20-something years old and had just graduated from seminary, where I learned the rules about what was and wasn’t done in the Lutheran church. Rules like the one that said no one could commune before fifth grade, and you had to go through a class first.

Now, those of you who know me best are probably shocked to hear that I would have done such a thing because I’m almost militant now about everybody being welcome at the Lord’s Supper -- no matter who they are, what they’ve done, what their age -- no questions asked, no one is turned away. What happened? Well, the short story is that when I was younger I put doing the right thing above doing the loving thing. And those were the rules, doggone it. But I’ve changed my mind. I was wrong. I don’t care what the rules were, I should never have done that to Jane and her son.

I changed my mind. I was wrong. When’s the last time you said that? Some people have no difficulty saying those words and others have never uttered them in their entire lifetime. Even when it’s obvious that they’re wrong, they can’t bring themselves to admit it. And they certainly don’t allow themselves to be changed by their experience. This a huge impediment to the spiritual life. A big part of growing in the faith is being able to change your mind and admit that you were wrong.

Those who are truly open to the guidance of the Spirit approach life with a sense of open expectancy. Rather than resist transforming moments in their lives, they expect them. They are always open to the possibility that they may be changing their mind and admitting they were wrong. 

I remember how my denomination, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, had taken the position of excluding people living in committed same-gender relationships from serving in ordained ministry. After studying the issue, and praying for the Spirit's guidance for years and years, we came to a time when we corporately confessed: We changed our mind. We were wrong. 

I was at the churchwide assembly where this all came down. After it did, our synod's bishop met with a group of pastors in attendance to talk about how this would impact our ministries in the parishes where we were serving. (I was in one of the few congregations in the North Carolina Synod where there would be celebrating.)

A pastoral colleague who had been diligently working for several years to start a new mission church with a large number of African American members was in tremendous turmoil over the churchwide decision. I think it's safe to say that she was against the change. She told us that she was afraid to go home, afraid that her people would never accept this, and afraid that all her hard work will have been for naught. When she described what had happened for her people, she said, "It's like their whole world has been turned upside down."

Wow. As soon as she said it I thought of a verse from the book of Acts. That's exactly what people were saying about those very first Christians who went about proclaiming the gospel of Christ: "These people have been turning the world upside down..." The gospel has a way of doing that, doesn't it? It turns our world upside down. And just when we think we may have it right-side up again, the Spirit reminds us that we may be wrong about some things and we've got some mind-changing to do. And, once again, our world is turned upside down. 

I've been so wrong about so many things in my life, and I suspect I still am. And every time I find myself having one of those Duh! moments when I wonder how I could ever have been so mistaken, something inside me grows. It's like knocking the sides out of the tiny little box I was living in and discovering a world so much grander than I had ever imagined.

World-flipping, transformative experiences have happened so often for me that I've grown to expect them.  I've learned that not only is it okay for me to be wrong sometimes, it's necessary. At least I think it's necessary. But I may be wrong about that. 

Friday, January 4, 2013

Why I shop at Walmart

I know that Walmart is responsible for the demise of many small businesses. And I know they’re terrible to their employees. That’s why, for many years, I refused to shop there unless I absolutely had no choice. And I was proud of my resolute conscience. Yes, I was spending more for the same stuff somewhere else, but it was a justice issue for me and I figured that a few cents more was a small price to pay for treating people fairly.

Now, I have a confession to make. *deep breath* I’ve been going to Walmart.

It all started when they tore down my neighborhood supermarket. The original Harris Teeter was just a couple of blocks from the church; it was so convenient that making a regular stop on my way home from work became routine for me. And then someone decided that this lovely old store, that should have been turned into a national landmark, needed to be flattened. In its place, they’re building an all new Harris Teeter that has multiple levels with a Starbucks on the mezzanine looking out at the uptown skyline, and a parking deck. They have assured us that it will open in the spring of 2013 although, when I look at the progress, I find that hard to believe. Anyway, in the meanwhile, all of us HT regulars have been scattered to the winds, blowing in and out of other stores in outlying neighborhoods. 

During this time of exile, while I've been biding my time until the day day I can return home again, I have discovered Walmart. Once I got over the shock of entering the store, with each visit, I have become more and more comfortable shopping there. And now I must admit that I have become something I swore I would never be --  a “Walmart Shopper.” No, I’m not proud of this. You have to understand that it’s just something that happened. 

I have to say that there is one thing about Walmart that keeps sending me back. It’s not really the low prices, or being able to find everything I need under one roof. You can find that elsewhere. (Costco, for example, which also treats their employees well. Although there isn’t one close to me.) But here’s the deal. When I am at home in my dirty sweats. When I look in the mirror to see dark, smudgy raccoon circles under my eyes from the previous day’s mascara.  When I haven’t bothered to shower yet, or put on deodorant, or brush my teeth. When my greasy hair looks like I had been tied to the mast of the Andrea Gail just before it went under. When I realize that I have absolutely no business being seen in public, and yet… I’m out of toilet paper. I could take the time necessary to make myself presentable. Or I could just run to Walmart.

And that’s why I shop at Walmart. Because I can walk in the doors looking like a grub worm and still hold my head high. Well, as high as a grub worm is capable of holding its head. But, the point is, I know that no one will judge me for my grubbiness. I’ll fit right in. I mean, really, have you ever looked around at the people you see at Walmart! No, these people are not going to judge me.

Now, if I could just stop judging them…

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

The old lady I hope to become (limited capacity, pt. 2)

Since I turned 60 I’ve been thinking about growing old. Despite the general lack of longevity in my family, with each passing year, the likelihood that I might one day become an old lady is increasing. And, while I have a ways to go yet, I’m considering the kind of old woman I’d like to be.

In my profession, I have been blessed to spend time with a number of people, mostly women, who have experienced a century of life, give or take a few years. Some of them seem to do it with such grace, while others (… I’ve re-written this so many times that I think I’d better just say…) don’t do it with so much grace. So, which kind might I become? 

Truth be told, I suspect I’ll have my good days and my bad days, just as I do now. One of the things I’ve observed about old people is that they don’t suddenly become different people simply by the passage of time. They tend to be who they have always been, only more so. If they were kind and loving when they were young, they tend to become even kinder when they’re old. If they were mean and vindictive when they were young, they tend to become even meaner when they’re old. It’s a bit unnerving to think that as I grow older I will probably reveal my true self to the world.

As I have often observed, old people have lots of reasons for sharing their unhappiness with others. Their lives are all about loss. Just think about how it must feel to be the last one of your siblings standing. Imagine having no remaining peers. I can’t get my head around one day finding myself in a place where no one around me can remember what it was like the day that Kennedy died. The loneliness of old age is exacerbated with the isolation that comes from losing so much of our capacity to interact with others because of our diminishing ability to hear or see.

The world that we once commanded in all its fullness gradually becomes smaller for us as we age. Surely a senior citizen’s worst day is the one where they have to relinquish their car keys, knowing that for the rest of their lives they will be dependent upon other people for something as simple as picking up a loaf of bread.  And then, there is the humiliation that comes when you realize that even if someone picks you up in their car and takes you out, you have to be ever mindful of the nearest restroom, lest you get caught in a situation where you can’t get to it in time. And let’s not forget how you are forced to obsess over the most inconsequential details of life, not because you have grown petty, but because you are so afraid you are going to forget something important that you have to hang onto it with the tenacity of a two-year-old who has been told not to say a dirty word.

Oh, I could go on with this, but I think you get my point. Yes, I’ve been thinking about it a lot lately and I’ve had a revelation. I've changed my viewpoint about growing older. It had seemed to me in the past that growing older is primarily about loss. I think a lot of people see it that way and that’s why they spend so much time pushing against it. Few people like to admit to being old and they will resist the notion for as long as they can. But I’m thinking that’s not the way I want to do it. If I should live long enough to become a bona fide old lady, it’s my hope that I will do a lot more than resist and resent it.

This is the other side of my previous blog post where I talked about how a big part of growing from childhood into adulthood is discovering what the possibilities and limitations in our lives are. But that’s not the task of growing older. As I see it, growing older is about accepting our limitations and being at peace with them. Notice I’m not saying that we need to fight against our limitations for as long as possible and then ultimately resign ourselves to the inevitable, which is what I often see among those who are approaching old age.  I’m talking about being at peace with where your journey has brought you.

I’ve seen so many older people come to this place in their lives and they have taught me about what matters the most. It’s not about achieving social status, or acquiring a bunch of stuff. It’s not about all the things you accomplished or didn’t accomplish. In fact, it’s not about what you’ve done at all. I know it’s a cliché, but it's true that once you can no longer prove your worth by doing, you can finally appreciate the value of being

I will know that I’ve arrived when I’m more concerned about being than doing. When I’ll have nothing better to do with my life than live into the person God created me to be. A big part of that is coming to terms with the fact that I am a finite being. One day my heart will stop beating and my brain will shut down. It’s the ultimate limitation, the one that we all face. I’ve done a pretty good job of pretending it’s never going to happen for most of my life. As I get older, it’s becoming more difficult to dismiss it. 

I don’t know whether or not I will live to be an old lady, and if I do, I don’t know what kind of an old lady I will be. But it’s my prayer that I will be one of those people who grows old gracefully, at peace with the limitations of my life. 

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Even a blank piece of paper has edges (limited capacity, pt. 1)

You know that scene in Star Wars when Luke Skywalker is flying his little X-wing fighter into the Death Star and has to find the exact spot to destroy it, and instead of using his fancy high-tech instruments, he trusts the Force to guide him, and he ends up saving the Galaxy? Well, don’t try that at home.

I learned that back when I was in third grade. On one end of Ridgewood Avenue was Adams Elementary School and on the other end, four blocks away, was my house. It was a straight shot, downhill. So, one day as I was riding my bicycle home from school, I got it into my head that if I coasted perfectly straight and closed my eyes, I would end up at 435 Edwards Ave. I knew nothing of the Force, since it was years before George Lucas would even imagine Star Wars. But, in my mind, there was no reason why this wouldn’t work. When a telephone pole jarred me into reality, I ended up with a chipped front tooth to remind me of how stupid I had been.  

Did you grow up believing the line that “If you put your mind to it, you can do anything”? And do you remember when you learned that it’s bullshit? For some of us the cold, hard truth came early on, while others continued to live in La-la Land way too long. But crossing over from idealism to realism is part of growing up. 

We all have limitations. Our school years alone teach us that. Everybody can’t be class valedictorian. We can’t all become the homecoming queen, or the star of the basketball team. And for those who seem to breeze through it all effortlessly with the wind filling their sails, it’s simply a matter of time before they, too, are confronted with the reality of their limitations.

It’s just not true that if you put your mind to it, you can do anything. Although, it is certainly true that if you don’t put your mind to it, you can’t do squat. Figuring out what’s possible without selling yourself short is tricky. That's why, when you're trying to motivate someone, it's always a good idea to encourage them to strive for that which seems to be just a little beyond their grasp. Often what seems to be impossible turns out to be quite possible, after all.

There are all kinds of things that can limit us, including natural ability, available resources, and life circumstances. Some things are just beyond our control. The one thing that often limits humans from achieving their potential that really gets my goat is other humans. I remember having an interview once when I was in college. He was a middle-aged white guy and he asked me what my major was. When I told him I wanted to be a teacher, he nodded his head and said, “Yes, that’s a good thing for a woman to do. And if it doesn’t work out, you could always become a nurse.” I’ll never forget that moment. I wanted to scream. But, of course, I sat there and smiled.

It’s especially tragic when the one who imposes limitations on us is a parent. I don’t know that I always negotiated this very well with my own kids. I learned that there is a fuzzy line between encouraging my children to achieve their dreams and discouraging them from chasing after that which is unattainable. For example, I did everything I could to support them in the arts, and absolutely nothing to support them in athletic endeavors. Was it because I myself was an artsy type with no inclination to the sporting life? Or was it because I saw that my children also shared my same natural talents?

I don’t know if all parents do this, but I find that I’m always questioning my own motivation with my children. Given the complexity of the parent-child relationship, that’s not all that surprising. While we’re guiding our children into adulthood we never stop dealing with our own childhood crap and sometimes it gets all tangled up. That’s something kids don’t realize until they become parents themselves. (If they did, they would be a lot kinder and gentler with their parents.) When my daughter and son were young, I had a responsibility to protect them, but it wasn’t always easy for me to see when I was limiting them for their own good and when I was stifling them. I suppose the big question that I continue to wrestle with is the one that is a part of every loving relationship: Am I doing this because it’s what the one I love needs, or is it because of what I need for myself?

When my daughter Gretchen decided to move from North Carolina to New York City, everything within me wanted to beg her not to do it. But I also knew that it was something she had worked toward for a very long time, and I didn’t want her not to move to NYC, either. Certainly not because of me. (As if I could have stopped her if I tried.) She’s a woman now, and she chooses her own path. I’ve moved from being a participant in her life to being a spectator. And what I’m watching is a very brave, very bright young woman negotiate the possibilities and limitations of her own life. As it unfolds before her, she is figuring out what really matters to her.

Negotiating the possibilities and limitations of his life is a theme for my son Ben, as well. As a musician, he writes amazing songs that he performs with a talented group of musicians. He believes in his heart-of-hearts that it’s just a matter of time before he will be rewarded for his accomplishments. If talent and hard work count for anything, he will make it. I have no doubt about that. But I know that there also is an element of luck involved, and that’s something no one can control. And a part of me worries about what might become of him if it never happens for him. I can only trust that he’ll figure it out as he goes, and he’ll be resilient enough to adjust his goals should it become necessary.

Both of my children are in their thirties now. They’re both still figuring it out. So am I. But one of the things I figured out a while back is that it’s not my place to determine how they might learn to live within the limitations of their lives. That’s an individual journey for each of us. No, they aren’t settled the way some people are at their age, and there is a part of mothering-me that worries about their future. But my worry is far overshadowed by my admiration. For they have a kind of courage rarely found in our world. I don’t know if I had anything to do with it, as their mother, but the fact that it’s true for both of my children brings me great satisfaction. And here is the gist of it: Someday, when Gretchen and Ben turn fifty, they won’t have to look back on their lives and wonder, “If only I had…”

Neither of them enjoyed coloring between the lines as a child; they both preferred a blank piece of paper that they could color as they chose. That’s the way they’re living their lives. They have not settled for predefined limitations. No, if they put their mind to it, they can’t do anything. They have limitations. Of course, they do. But these are limitations they are discovering for themselves.