Friday, October 30, 2015


I spent last night at my seminary, from which I graduated five years ago, in one of the guest rooms on the first floor of my old dorm.  I was there for a continuing education event which took place last night and this morning.

In some ways, it was like old times.  I went with a friend, saw some friends from seminary days, and met some new people.   The dining room is the same, the food is the same, and at lunchwe talked and talked just as we had not so long ago. 

But seminary for me was unlike seminary for most people.  Josh died right at the beginning of my second year, and so my last two years were a dream-like experience.  A walking dead kind of experience  I'm pretty sure that I was insane ~ quite literally ~ with grief.  I remarked at the time that I felt as if I were wandering around on the surface of the moon.  "How would you know what that would be like?" someone asked me.  "I guess I wouldn't," I said. "But I'm pretty sure this is it."  It probably had something to do with complete isolation and lack of oxygen, appearances notwithstanding. 

Last night I looked out the window and recalled all those sleepless hours, night after night, when I would go out after midnight and walk in circles around the campus, trying to . . .  I don't know what I was trying to do.  

It was a strange experience, my seminary career.  I'm so sorry that it wasn't what I had anticipated, not after the first year.

But tonight I think: What if I hadn't returned?  (A lot of people thought that going back was itself the truest indication of insanity.)

I would have missed the conversations and emails I've had with friends over the past few weeks. I wouldn't even have those friends. I would have missed this whole life as a pastor that I've had, despite everything crashing and burning and going to hell, including me.  I would have missed so much. 

I would have missed my version of surviving.

I will never be that person who went off to school in the fall of 2007.  She is long gone, never to return.

But I find that this new one is not so bad.

Saturday, October 24, 2015

A Church Comes to a Close ~11: Final Session Meeting

In the Presbyterian Church, the church council is called a session.  Ours has its final regular meeting tomorrow afternoon.
In my report, I provided an update on the nuts and bolts of the closing, and added the following, more important than any nut or bolt:
It has been my great privilege to serve our congregation with each of you for the past two years.  I so wish that the results as we know them right now were different ~ I do believe that in many ways we came close to transforming the life of the church.  And I am sure that the Holy Spirit has moved among us in powerful ways.  But God’s ways are so often not ours, and the Spirit may have been directing all of us toward something we have not yet imagined or understood. 
Nevertheless, from the most vexing maintenance problem to the most wondrous visioning questions, each of you has served the congregation with energy and intelligence and imagination ~ and distinction.  I am truly proud of and humbled by (can you be both things at once?) your courage, your willingness to try and try again, your honesty, and your determination to go out strong.
Well done, good and faithful servants.

A Church Comes to a Close ~ 10: Hindsight

It's always 20:20, isn't it? Although I confess, I haven't yet had the laser surgery that might afford me that vision, not where our congregation is concerned.
Let me state first that this is not a pity party.  My colleagues affirm that I have done well. My parishoners are grateful for the preaching and care they've received. 
But . . .
Every day I look around and ask: What did I miss?
Is there money hiding under a cushion somewhere?
Should I have walked through the building more often and looked at all that it contains in a material way (see previous post) and found a way to re-purpose it?
Should I have been out in the city more often talking with people and inviting them over?
Should I have shoved the congregation out the door to do the same?
Should I have stopped trying to address the endless series of financial problems and focused entirely on the congregation and neighborhood, building be damned?
Should I have insisted that we spend a month of Sundays worshipping in homes and cooking food together to give away so that people could have experienced an alternative form of being church?
Should I have spent more time teaching the various committee members how to do their work so that it didn't all fall on a few resolute leaders?
Should I have submitted that huge grant proposal to the Presbytery?
Should I have written an article each month for the local paper?
Should I have found a way for me to worship more, pray more, seek God more, and hear more?
I just don't know.

A Church Comes to a Close ~ 9: Please Don't Use!

Our administrative assistant and I are in the process of inventorying the contents of the church.  Last week, I made my way through most of the kitchen, and found what you might expect in the way of appliances, utensils, serving platters, and china and silverware.
I don't recall the china having been used since my arrival two years ago.  It seems that there must at one time have been at least 100, maybe 150, place settings of the white china, and possibly another 50 of the flowered china. We have used paper and plastic for everything ~ coffee hours, celebrations, and monthly free community meals.  As far as I know, the dishwasher ~ oops, forgot to add that to the inventory! ~ does not work, so using china would add substantially to an event's workload.
I knelt down to open a lower cupboard one day, where I discovered a store of dessert plates, on top of which rested a handwritten note stating that, "These plates have been counted and stacked.  Please do not use!"
I've been thinking about that note all week and what it says about the state of mind in the congregation.
What if it had said, instead, "These plates have been stacked and counted.  Ready for the next event!"
Or, "Clean and ready to use.  Enjoy!"


Sunday, October 18, 2015

Called to Serve ~ Sermon (Mark)

“Calgon, take me away…”!  Do you remember rthat line from those commercials from the 1970s and 80s, for Calgon bath and beauty products? Occasionally a friend of mine will quote it during a particularly stressful moment.  “Calgon, take me away . . . “. For many of us, the picture comes immediately to mind: a woman relaxing in a tub filled with bubbles and lovely scents, relaxing for a few moments from the demands of her life.
I think that sometimes we imagine that that’s what our church life is.  Take me away . . . let me relax, on Sunday morning, from the strains and stresses of my daily life.  Let me hear some beautiful – and familiar -- music, let me participate in well-known rituals, let me hear a sermon that’s intriguing, perhaps, but not too challenging.  Let this hour or so on Sunday morning be a respite from my daily life in which children and grandchildren and parents and neighbors and employers make all kinds of demands upon me.  Let this hour of worship be a place of comfort in the midst of a world in which starvation and homelessness and terrorism seem to have the upper hand. Take me away . . .   .  

And Jesus’ disciples?  They do us one better.  Here they are this morning, following Jesus around like optimistic little puppies.  It seems that they’ve already forgotten what they heard in last week’s passage, which Mark places right before this week’s.  Remember last week?  What did Jesus say?  Go and sell everything that you have and give it to the poor!  Faith is a challenge to what you think is so important. Let go!
But the disciples have forgotten all that.  This morning, James and John go straight to Jesus – and first they tell him that they want him to do whatever they ask of him.  Can’t you hear Jesus sigh?  They really haven’t heard him at all.  He’s been telling them all along to do for others, and they’ve been watching him do for others, but they want something for themselves.  He’s been telling them that his immediate future involves suffering and death, but they cannot imagine anything other than glory: excitement, success, triumph! So Jesus – I am pretty sure about this – Jesus sighs, and ask them what it is that they want him to do for them.
And they have an immediate, confident response. “We want to sit at your right hand and your left, in your glory!”  Whatever it is that’s coming, they want to be seated in the places of honor.  They want to be seen, they want to be recognized, they want to be honored, they want to exert power. 
They have definitely missed the parts about giving away all that they have.  And they MOST definitely have missed the part about giving up ease and triumph for suffering and death.
They have gone way beyond a request for a life of ease and relaxation.  Way beyond “Take me away, Calgon.” They have moved right up to a demand for glory and honor. 
And don’t we do that as well?  We don’t want church to provide us with merely a time and space for respite and comfort during the week.  We want it to provide us with a place in life, with recognition, with honor.  We want to be noticed and thanked for all we’ve done.  We want to influence people and make the decisions.  We want to sit at Jesus’ right and left hands!

And what does Jesus say to them?  You do not know what you are asking.  You. do. not. know. what. you. are. asking.

You’ve heard this before, haven’t you?  Be careful what you ask for.  We usually say that in a humorous tone of voice.  You want a new house?  It will come with all sorts of responsibilities for maintenance.    Be careful what you ask for.  You want that job?  The boss is really difficult.  Be careful what you ask for.  You want to be on session?  You are going to have to figure out the church’s finances.  Be careful what you ask for.
Jesus, however, is not speaking humorously.  Jesus is serious. You want to sit at my right?  At my left? Then you will be drinking the cup that I drink.  You will be baptized as I was baptized.
What does that even mean?  The disciples have no idea and neither, frankly, do we.  We drink out of a bright and shiny cup on communion mornings, but Jesus drank out of a cup – and handed his disciples, and hands us – a cup that led straight to the cross.  We make baptism a bright and shiny event, but baptism sends us down into waters in which we die to this life and are re-born into a life with Jesus – a life marked by servanthood and suffering.  This is no Calgon bath, this Christian life.  There are no regal seats to the right and left of Jesus – at least not as we understand the word regal.  Be careful what you ask for. 

The disciples?  Nope, not careful.  As the others hear about what James and John have asked, they begin to get angry.  They feel left out.  We all know that feeling, right?  We’re excluded from something, and we’re disappointed, and then our feelings are hurt, and then we get angry.  And maybe even a little pushy.  Why should James and John get the right and left-hand seats?  Why did she get that job I wanted?  Why did he get to chair that committee?  Hey, Jesus!  I want to sit at your right or your left, or at least somewhere nearby.  I want to drink from the shiny cup.  I want some of that glory to rub off on me.

And Jesus says, “Sure!”  Here’s the Calgon and here’s the throne.  Come to church, relax, and gain a little prestige while you’ll at it.  Right?

No.  No, Jesus does not say those things.  Jesus says to sell all you have and give the money to the poor.  Jesus says to let go of your priorities and latch on to his.  Jesus says that what lies ahead is not glory as you imagine it to be.  Jesus says, “whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all.”
Servant?  Slave?  Those are tough words.  Slave, in particular, has so many horrific connotations that we hesitate even to read it that way.  Slavery in the Roman Empire?  Slavery in the Americas?  Slavery, today, in the sex trade industry?

Such a terrible word that I looked it up.  I tried to find another translation for this passage.  Couldn’t find one, not for that word.  I looked at definitions.  Someone who is the property of someone else and has to obey that person.  Someone overly influenced by something or in bondage to something.  However you look at it slavery is not something that, in modern language, we want even to consider.  But here is Jesus, telling us that those who want to be great among us will must be servants, and those who want to be first must be slaves of all.  Be careful what you ask for.
Now what does this mean for us, today? 
We are in a serious portion of the Gospel of Mark. No question about it.  We have reached the point at which Jesus is trying very hard to convey to his disciples that there are challenges and hardships in following him.  And those disciples – they are NOT getting it!  As so often we do not.  We want to come to church and relax.  We want to come to church and be comforted.  We want to come to church and find a bit of recognition, of applause, of honor, even. 

And Jesus says: You come to serve.  If you want to follow me, you serve others.  He even uses that word: slave.  That word?  I really don’t know what to do with it, except to say that with Jesus, words and phrases often don’t mean what we think they do.  Jesus never advocates un-freedom, or bondage, or allowing ourselves to be controlled by forces of evil.  Never.  And God ~ if we go all the way back to the Exodus story, to the Hebrew people enslaved by the Egyptians, we know that God always, always, always leads us toward freedom.

So: where is the freedom in this passage? We see that freedom lies in turning your life over to God.  In releasing all those priorities of your own that keep you tied to the things to which we so quickly fall prey – to materialism and consumerism and racism and sexism and homophobia.  That freedom lies in understanding that we are called to service, and not to control.  That freedom lies in understanding that we are drawn to church not as to a spa for relaxation, or to a political party for recognition and honor, but to a community of Christ for service. 

Hard words, these.  But words for us all to take to heart this morning.  As we all seek new church homes, I hope that we remember this call to serve others.  I hope that we will take the gifts we have honed here and find ways to use them in the service of both nearest neighbor and greatest world.  I do hope, as well, that each of us finds a home in which we can rest in God, and in which we do come to know a  sense of belonging, but I hope that we don’t stop there.  It’s so easy to be like James and John and say, “What can you do for me?  It’s so easy to say, “Does the music inspire me?  Do the sermons speak to me?  Does the décor lift my spirits?  Will I be seated on the right or the left of Jesus here?” 

It’s a little more difficult to remember to ask,
·         How might I serve? 
·         How might I be provoked and challenged here? 
·         How might my gifts be more fully realized here? 
·         How might I draw closer to Jesus here?
·         How might Jesus be calling me to a fuller and more profound servanthood here?
·         How might I become great in matters of faith, which means low ~ at the bottom of the heap, actually ~ in matters of ordinary human life?
As we prepare to move on, let’s consider these questions with great care.  Let’s remember that, if we are scrambling and pushing and shoving for anything, it should be to crowd into the back of the line, with Jesus. Let’s remember that at each and every point of transition in life, we are called to open ourselves to serve the God who is dreaming a new creation into being.  Not to control, not to dominate. not to reign.  But to serve.  Amen.

Friday, October 16, 2015

Restorative Day

I need to make a regular habit of taking some retreat time!
I've had a lovely day ~ a long walk, a good read of a big chunk of David Brooks' book on character, some housework and errands, listening (twice) to Krista Tippet's interview with John O'Donohue, an episode of Doc Martin, some music and some coloring and some journaling, and a visit with a good friend.
The Little Stray Cat now has a straw bed, I have some lovely new stuff in my head for my church and myself, and I am feeling quite mellow.  I really did need to break the cycle of roiling, obsessive thoughts that had nearly taken over my life these last few months.   I am hopeful tonight about the restoration of my contemplative life, and what I hope will be its salutary effect on everyone I live and work with.

Thursday, October 15, 2015


One day.  Tomorrow.
I had some plans to get away to Chautauqua for a day (John Carroll, where I teach, is on a long week-end, so no class), but I've abandoned those. And I don't think the weather is going to cooperate as hoped for per the image above, so . . . an indoor retreat at home. 
I am unraveling here. Yesterday I had a flat tire way over on the other side of Cleveland.  This morning the tire store came up with ideas for $1,200 of repairs beyond the free tire replacement.  (Which were ultimately deemed  unnecessary, but not before I had completely flipped out.)  This after $$$ of repairs during the last couple of months, and at the same time that the furnace guy was at my house installing a new panel, whatever that is ~ also not inexpensive. 
At church, the day care director's anxiety over the Presbytery's indecision about its continued tenancy is spilling outward.  There was correspondence about the closing to which to attend, and food gone bad to throw out, and two Bible studies to lead.  I wrote most of my sermon at 7:00 am because I was up, so why not? . . . after having been wide awake at midnight when I realized that I had left the thing that covers the spare tire in the trunk behind at the gas station where someone had kindly changed my tire.  (Got that?)
And then there is this stray cat I have been feeding for more than two weeks.  I was freezing last night in our furnace-free house, so I was also awake worrying about her. Hoping that she makes it until her date with the shelter, and hoping that then she can be found.
Just too much. 
I did tell my assistant today that as I was getting out of my car at church, I was thinking that I should get back in and start driving.  I could call her from wherever I was at about 6:00 p.m. ~ Wisconsin, maybe?
But I didn't do it. 
So: A day.  Tomorrow.


Monday, October 12, 2015

A Church Comes to a Close ~ 7: Not Prepared for This One!

A neighboring congregation has rolled out the welcome mat for ours.  Our session (and I) visited theirs (and their pastor)  a few weeks ago for an introductory meeting and tour.  They are taking our columbarium, shelves and stained glass window and all, and installing it in their building.  And yesterday, eighteen of our members worshipped with them.
And liked it.
LIKED it?  I wasn't at all prepared for them to LIKE it. 
Five folks stayed at "home" and so I led an informal service in our parlor, but I made it to the other church in the middle of the sermon, with about 20 minutes to go in the service.  Afterward, a large group of us went out to lunch, where I got to hear all the things they liked. 
The numbers of church.  The youth liturgist.  The bell choir.  The final song.  The pastor's animated preaching.  The light in the sanctuary.  The large, multi-generational congregation.  The graciousness of the regulars.
What's not to like?
Several of my colleagues have pointed out that my congregation has been well-prepared for change, prepared to be open and curious and to move on.  It's true; I have preached and taught and tried to model those things, and our session leadership has supported the rest of the congregation in exploring new possibilities.
But I'm not all that sure that I intended for them to LIKE it.

Sunday, October 11, 2015

Blessed Interlude

Time to bless animals!  In memory of St. Francis and in honor of our furry friends.

Today I had the delight of helping out at a colleague's church. Two cats, one rat, and many very lively dogs!

Saturday, October 10, 2015

A Church Comes to a Close ~ 6: Losses

There is our administrative assistant, who has sustained a number of hits fairly recently; the biggest, to my knowledge, being the death of her sister last winter after a long and cancerous siege.  Her job, and (most of all) the relationships it creates, have been big factors in sustaining her life.
There is one of our main volunteers, a 90-year-old woman, who found life anew as a major participant in the life of the church after she was widowed for the second time, a decade ago.  At our meeting last week, she stated that her biggest fear is losing her opportunity to volunteer, to be of service.
Another 90-year-old woman, whose health has prevented her from coming to church for most of the past year.  She has already lost an elderly husband, a middle-aged son, and an infant daughter.  And most of her friends.  Although the church of women's guild tea parties that she remembers is long gone, the disappearance of the entire enterprise is a major blow. 
Another major volunteer, a woman in her fifties now off to seminary. She and at least one other member, an irrepressible older woman, are both survivors of another church closing, only a few years ago.
Our almost inexhaustible clerk of session and her mother, daughter and widow of the founding pastor.  Our clerk has been here her entire life, and her mother for sixty years of hers, except for the brief period after their father and husband retired, when they went elsewhere.   The extent of their loss ~ lifetimes of faithful participation and extensive contribution ~ is so vast that words fail me. 
And me.  I've had a few defeats of my own over the past few years. Now: an entire church.
I woke up this morning thinking of some advice I read a few years ago about taking time off from grief.  Excellent advice.
I just cannot figure out when, where, and how we are supposed to carve out this time off over the next six weeks. 

Thursday, October 8, 2015

A Church Comes to a Close ~ 5: Worn Out By The Thought of It All

There is a building and all of its contents to deal with.  Want a piano?  Want a box of files from 1972?  Want enough china to serve 200?  No, no one does.
There is the post-departure building security in a troubled neighborhood to deal with.  More lighting, says the police department.  Plow and mow, says the Presbytery.  Stay open, says the day care.  Got money?  No, no one does.
There is the neighborhood to which to attend.  Got bus passes?  Got food?  Got grocery cards?  Nope, running out of all of them.  (Well, then, could I have one of the refrigerators? asked a gentleman yesterday.  I don't have food, but I can get a truck.)
There are the members to love.  Where shall we go?  What about my funeral? Who do I talk to, if I need a pastor?   Not here, not here, not me.
There is the pastor to . . . what?  Where are you going?  Will the Presbytery find you a church?  Are you staying in town?  Are you ok?  No idea, reduplicated.  (That is a funny term from seminary Greek.  How the hell do you RE-duplicate anything?  I don't remember what it means, but I still find it humorous.)
And now: The presbytery is hoping we will have a reception after our final service (with which the presbytery will end our congregational life and which no member wants to attend), and wants to celebrate the THREE churches we are closing in our area in the next three months with a presentation or Powerpoint or something or other at the November presbytery meeting. 
So . . .  while you are running to the hospital to see members briefly felled by stress and while you are trying to figure out where you rent a dumpster and while you are listening to "I just can't believe it" (reduplicated) and while you are trying to figure out what to do about your health insurance, would you mind making a Powerpoint of high enough quality for a large crowd?
Oh, and hey, Pastor, don't forget about Self Care!  OK?  You'll do that, too, right?


Wednesday, October 7, 2015

A Congregation Comes to a Close ~ 4: Columbarium

I have been writing letters.  To the exercise classes and AA and NA groups that meet in our building, to tell them the dates by when they must move on, and to the folks who have left the cremains of their loved ones with us.  For some years, the urns were stored in the bell tower (in which no bell resides) but, more recently, a beautiful little columbarium was built off the chancel.  Oak cupboards and a backlit stained glass window; a lovely space to visit.
A neighboring Presbyterian church has offered to remove our columbarium and install it somewhere in its building, so probably most of our cremains will go there.  But we still have to send a letter to everyone to explain the situation and ask what they would like to do.  Some are current members, who will receive a personal note from me on the form letter. Many are themselves long gone from the congregation, and perhaps from this world.  Some will no doubt come looking a few years hence, and frantic calls to the Presbytery will ensue.
I have presided over many funerals since becoming a pastor four years ago, and many interments of caskets and urns.  I have also continued my own little worldwide journey with ashes of my son in hand, most recently to Canada.  Most people look inside caskets; few, as far as I can tell, look inside urns. Although mothers do.  I'm not sure that the sense of the world flung out of orbit ever leaves us after that first look.  "Bone of my bone," as a dear friend said to me about our children.  As with most things related to the deaths of children, scripture offers cold comfort.
Despite the stress involved in learning to scatter ashes so as to render them, and the activity itself, invisible in spots where others might raise objections (and sometimes the humor as well, as we  finally experienced it, in the form of an early morning campus paintball game on a day when we were sure we would encounter no one), I prefer the winds and the wilds to urns locked in a an interior space.   And this latest experience has turned out to transmit its own stressors.  My own reaction where cremains are concerned is a relaxed one, but you never knows how others will respond.  One person's calm is another's horror, and vice versa.
I need to remind myself that the conversations that lie ahead will be holy ones.

Monday, October 5, 2015

A Congregation Comes to a Close - 3: Anything Going Right?

What's going well?
That was the first question our consultant asked us yesterday when the congregation met for a conversation over a potluck luncheon. 
It seemed that each of the four round tables of people came up with one similar answer: We are all still coming.
True enough.  Attendance has not dropped at all.
And, I added, people are still doing the work that needs to be done.  We still have ushers and communion servers and liturgists and Powerpoint operators.   And people made lunch!
Perhaps lethargy.  Perhaps denial.
But, on the whole, I think folks really do want to be together as they have been for as long as they can.

Morning Mindfulness

I don't know that I have ever taken out the trash mindfully, but today I did.  Sort of.
I know about mindfulness but, as with so many things, what I know does not translate into what I do.  Yesterday, I picked up a little book on mindfulness, which is probably why . . . the trash.
The book contains an introduction by Jon Kabat-Zinn, whom I think of as the father of the modern mindfulness movement in the west; at least one of the writers is from Oxford University; and it sets out an eight week plan ~ just matching the time our congregation has left.  Seven weeks plus the Thanksgiving Week after our closing services, when I will probably be numbed by exhaustion.  So it should be a good book for me.
This morning, on my pretend day off, I had imagined myself lying around in bed, reading the introductory chapters.  But at 7:15, I realized that I had forgotten about the trash, and leaped out of bed and made a dash for the window.  The garbage collectors were a bit late, so I hurried into a sweatshirt and running shoes and ran downstairs.
And then I mindfully took out the trash.
Remembering that it was down my own front steps that I tumbled nearly two years ago and broke the ankle that still hurts when it rains, and thus moving carefully.
Grateful that the garbage collectors come and pick up trash and recycling.
Recalling autumn afternoons with my grandmother, who burned the trash, hers and ours, in an outdoor brick incinerator, a structure which always held a certain fascination for me.
A better beginning to the day than yesterday, when I was so pre-occupied by thoughts of the coming morning at church that I took my blood pressure medication twice, both before and after my shower, after which I had to sit on the toilet lid and google overdose information.  (I take so little that the primary side effect of times two has been the many, many trips to that toilet and others in the 27 hours since, as my body relives itself of the extra water.)
But here I am, writing and eating my poached eggs.
It is not so easy, mindfulness in 2015 America.

Sunday, October 4, 2015

A Congregation Comes to a Close - 2 (Sermon: Brothers and Sisters [Hebrews])

Have any of you heard of the book All The Light We Cannot See? 
It’s a recent novel by Anthony Doerr, with whom I am not otherwise familiar.  It was published last year and won several prizes, including the Pultizer Prize, a major book award, but that’s not why I’ve been reading it.  I’ve been reading it because a friend recommended it -- and by “reading it,” I mean that I raced through it once, because the suspense was almost intolerable, and now I am re-reading it slowly, savoring every word.
All The Light We Cannot See. The title is ironic, in that the two main characters represent seeing and not-seeing in different ways. They are each engulfed in the horror of World War II as it plays out in Europe.  One of the main characters, a young German boy, is pulled into the Nazi war machine, and struggles mightily to see clearly what he does not want to see at all -- the corruption and evil which dominate his life.  The other, a young French girl, is trapped in a city occupied by the Germans.  She is literally blind, and yet she sees the world around her clearly and is thus able to act with tremendous dignity and courage.
The lives of these two characters are intertwined early on, although they do not know it until they meet, by happenstance, in the middle of a great battle.  And we understand that, while the title of the book, All The Light We Cannot See, is about light, and vision, at many levels, light and vision are about relationship – and, ultimately, about relationship for good.
Jesus, too, as we so often hear in the Bible, is about light, and vision.  “I am the light of the world,” he tells us, in the Gospel of John.  I bring not merely sight, but vision – understanding – of what is real, of what is important – he tells us as he heals those who are without literal sight.
And this light, this vision, this Jesus – he is about relationship.  Today’s text reminds us that he is in relationship with us.
Our text today comes from the Book of Hebrews.  We don’t know who wrote the Book of Hebrews, although it’s possible that the apostle Paul did, which would mean that it was written in the middle of the first century.  What we do know is that it makes reference to Jesus’ calling his disciples, calling us, brothers and sisters. Jesus calls us brothers and sisters. 
What is a brother or a sister? The most basic definition is that brothers and sisters are people whose relationship is determined by their having a parent in common. And who is Jesus?  The son of God, the heir of God, as our passage also tells us – which makes us also the children and heirs of God and God’s goodness.  The heirs of God’s light. 
But – let’s get back to brothers and sisters.  What does it mean that Christ calls us brothers and sisters?  It means that he draws us together into relationship as one family of siblings. 
And what does it mean to be included in this family, to be brothers and sisters to one another?  It means that we follow Jesus and his teachings.  It means that we are drawn into his light. It means that his way of seeing, his vision, become our way of seeing and our vision.
And what are those teachings?  Love God.  Love one another.  What path do they light?  The path of love.  How are we to see? With love.
Since we are talking about brothers and sisters today, I want to focus on the call to love one another.  The call to be in relationship. And I want to do that in the light of this congregation’s current situation, and in the light of the path of love we walk during this difficult time of loss and sadness. And in light of the loving meal we are about to share.
At their best, what do brothers and sisters do for one another?
For one thing, they, brothers and sisters recall a common heritage together.  They know who they are – together.  In my husband’s family, there is an old photograph of the four siblings lined up – seated on an ironing board, as it turns out – in a little row, when they were about three, four, five, and six years old.  Last New Years’, the four of them sat on a couch – they don’t fit on an ironing board anymore! -- in the same configuration, so that a matching photograph could be taken – nearly sixty years later.  A sign of one of the things brothers and sisters in relationship do for one another: they remember the past together.
Another thing brothers and sisters often do together is share activities and events together.  Some extended families live in close proximity to one another – my husband’s brother and one of his sisters, and their spouses and families, now extending to two generations, live in the same town as his mother, and so they all share time together on nearly a daily basis.    But even families whose members live at a considerable distance usually find time to get together for holidays and weddings – or funerals --  and for graduations and new babies and other significant milestones.   Brothers and sisters share their lives with one another.  They tend to relationships.
A third thing brothers and sisters do? They take care of one another.  When one is in trouble, others come running.  When life hands one an unexpected challenge, the others are there.  When someone needs a listening ear, it’s often a brother or sister who calls.  When practical needs arise, it’s sometimes a brother or sister who lends a hand.
And I’m not just talking about biological brothers and sisters. Many of us have neighbors and friends who are as brothers and sisters to us – people with whom we share memories, and activities, and care. 
And in the Christian family? We are brothers and sisters together.  In relationship together.  Jesus calls us brothers and sisters because we are his disciples, because we follow him.  Biology has nothing to do with it.  Geographical proximity has nothing to do with it.  Longevity has nothing to do with it.  We are brothers and sisters because we are loved, and love one another, in Christ.  We are brothers and sisters because Jesus is our brother.
What does it mean for us, here at Boulevard, to be brothers and sisters, as we prepare to close? It means the same three things as it usually does, but in a very particular way:
As brothers and sisters in Christ, we remember together.  I invite – no, I URGE—you to spend time with your Boulevard family remembering.  Take a look at those old photo albums.  Pull out old cards and letters.  Talk over the memories with one another.  Treasure one another and what you have been to each other. 
You know what one of my favorite Boulevard memories is?  On one of my first Sundays here, Julie K pulled me aside and said, “Now I’m going to explain to you how things work around here!”  And then a year later, as she lay dying in hospice, she told me all about her childhood in a West Side Hungarian family.   I treasure those memories – and here I am sharing them with you, again.  Please – share your pasts with one another.  How do things work around here?  What did you learn here, together?  How did you worship together?  How did you celebrate together?  Remember, my friends, and remember well.
As brothers and sisters in Christ, we also share the present with each other.  Again, I urge you – take advantage of our last weeks of worship together.  Come to Bible study.  Spend time with your friends.  Participate in the work ahead together – come together to help with clearing out of the church.  It can be hard to see the light when the air is thick with sadness, as we all know from cleaning out the homes of loved ones whose lives have ended. But that is work that siblings do together.  And then -- Share in our final services together.
As brothers and sisters in Christ, we also care for one another.  My friends, we have many members who are unable to get out, to make it to worship, very often, or ever.  I urge you – care for one another.  I.  Y. R. D and N.  P.  S. T.  People just in and out of hospitals this past week.    These folks are not solely the responsibility of the pastor.   Cards are not solely the responsibility of S.  Make it your business to care for each other.  A card, a call, an email, a visit – these things mean so much. If you are an elder, past or present, talk to me so that we can plan to take communion to someone at home or in the hospital.  And – look around at those who ARE here, every week that they can be.  Everyone is hurting.  Make up your mind to reach out to one or two people each week so that you can have a talk about our closing. These are the sorts of things that brothers and sisters do for one another.
All the light we cannot see?  We do see the light, the light of Jesus, in relationship. In relationship with one another.
And today – today we have a special opportunity to share memory, and present, and care, not only with one another, but with the whole world!  Today is World Communion Sunday, which means that all over the world, at virtually every hour, congregations are sharing together the meal provided to us by Jesus Christ.  Today we are invited to remember, not only ourselves, but the worldwide church -- which for those of us here means folks from Africa and Europe and Asia and the Americas, and which for all of us means the whole world.  Today we are invited to participate in a great event, to share as brothers and sisters with people the whole world over.  And today we are called to care for one another by sharing the food and drink with which Jesus cares for us.
It is often – no, it is always – the case that our own sadness is relieved by attentiveness to others.  When we struggle and suffer, we grow, and our capacity for love increases, as we tend to our relationships with others.  And so, even as we re-affirm that we here at Boulevard are brothers and sisters, let us also celebrate the brotherhood of Jesus, with us and with all peoples of the world.  All the light we think we cannot see is right here, emanating from this table and filling the world with sight, with vision, and with relationship – with love. Amen.

Saturday, October 3, 2015

A Congregation Comes to An End -1

For nearly two years, my little congregation has been struggling to stay open, to merge with another congregation, to re-create itself, and now ~ finally ~ to close.

Much of what has happened has not been bloggable, but the time has come to go public, at least to some extent.

In a nutshell: a month after my arrival at the church, an unforeseen financial crisis resulted in a significant decrease in our income.  Eventually, we approached two other congregations about some sort of potential relationship.  One quickly backed out of our discussions.  With the other, we spent many months exploring a possible merger ~ and then it backed out as well.  At that point, we were financially strapped and our leadership was exhausted.  We made a few efforts to renew ourselves internally, but it became apparent that there was no energy for a new start, and on September 13 the congregation voted to close the church by the end of the year.

That little paragraph represents a mountain of hard work, frustration, hope, and sadness.

For the next several weeks, my sermons will be addressed to this particular context: a congregation on the verge of closing.  And I am going to write about the process, to the extent that I can.  Maybe someday, I'll write about the entire enterprise.
Tomorrow: World Communion Sunday, followed by a Congregational Conversation over a meal, as we begin to process reality together.
Image: Our sanctuary.  When I posted this picture on FB, a friend commented that it was beautiful, but would look better full of people.  Indeed.  That would be the problem.

Friday, October 2, 2015

My Mother, My Brother, Me

Fifty-five years is a long time not to have lived.

I've been pondering for days: what to write, about a mother and brother who barely had a chance? 

About growing up with half your family missing?

About what it might have been like to have had a mother with whom to share all of life's events, the big ones and the small ones?

I think that what I most regret this year is that: I don't know who they were.

My brother Dud never got to become who he was.  Today, had he lived, he would be almost 56.  What would he have loved as a boy?  Where would he have gone to school?  Would he have married and had a family?  What would have been his profession, his passions?  Would we be close friends, as my brother David and I are?

And my mother? I have a few things -- some pictures, one letter, and a fragment of another, some jewelry.  I have a few clear memories, and so I know that we, her children, were dear to her, and that she was kind and gracious and friendly.

What I have realized that I don't know at all is this: What did she care about, out there in the world?   What were her passions?  What might she have discovered and pursued, had she gone back to college when her children were grown?   Would she have become a determined advocate and fund-raiser for any causes?  A writer?  A world traveler?

And what about us, her children and grandchildren?  What would have been her priorities for us, in high school and college?  Have would she had responded to our mis-steps and failures?  Would we talk on the phone every day?  Would she have shown up and made pots of soup and changed sheets and vacuumed the house during those miserable pregnancies of mine?  Would she have been here for births and a death, for cancer and a broken ankle?  Would she have come to recitals and plays and games and graduations?

Would we have grown up in Florida?  That, I think, was the plan.  My parents had built a house for us in Vero Beach the Spring Before, and then we went back to Ohio.  When we returned to Florida the next year, would it have been for good? 

Who might I be, had I grown up in Florida instead of Ohio, at home instead of at boarding school,  with a mother instead of not?

But most of all, I just want to know:  What would she have to say? About anything at all?

Image: Vero Beach FL, May 1960 ~ a few months before they were killed in an automobile collision.