Saturday, May 3, 2014

Street Theater and Gospel Presence

  also on episcopal cafe    
My Lenten season this year began and ended with participation in displays of religion out in the streets.  This is not my usual mode:  I tend to be introverted, to value careful, one-on-one or small group conversations about faith as well as prayer and public worship .  But when my parish decided to participate in the “Ashes to Go” movement to begin Lent, I decided to take a shift as a lay minister, offering “Drive –through Ashes” in front of our parish church which stands at the edge of a busy intersection.  It seemed hokey – we held our “Ashes to Go” sign and waved it and to my amazement people pulled up to receive ashes.    Mothers driving carpools (one came back three times so that each of her kids could receive ashes), people on cell phones, interrupting their calls just long enough to “receive a blessing.”  People parking, getting out of their cars, and bowing their heads so that I could say the words “Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return,”  and adding a prayer of blessing Why would people pull over to hear those apparently grim words?  And yet over 150 people did that day.  I’ve been mulling it over the whole 40 days – remembering the quiet, calm radiance on people’s faces as they heard those words about their mortality.    But then I heard one of the people say into a cell phone.” Wait a minute:  I have to stop and get my blessing.”   And I realized that was what it was:  people were experiencing our presence on that street corner as in some way a blessing – they may have been former churchgoers or unchurched, though probably with some kind of tradition of Ash Wednesday in their lives.  Perhaps it was heard as blessing to have another human being say to you , “remember you are dust” – as we all are.  And that’s OK: we don’t have to be more than human.  We are who we are.  And we are blessed.
            Now I realize that for those of us committed to the life of the church Ash Wednesday means much more:  that commitment to a season of penitence and self-examination is also profoundly an “insider” experience – perhaps not the first service you would take a seeker to visit.  If we are already committed to the church, we are probably embracing the Lenten season as in some sense a blessing, if a hard one – as we do the rounds and cycles of the seasons that are the gift of the church year, and we each have our own ongoing struggles on the journey of faith.    But for those outside, there was something about our presence, our availability to them,  on Ash Wednesday, as Lent began, that seemed to speak.   Somehow our presence communicated that they were welcome as they are.  That we didn’t expect them to sign up or join. That God’s blessing is available,  and that we were hoping it could come to them through us.

            I ended Lent in Paris, where we happened to be traveling on  Palm Sunday weekend, and I was delighted to join the procession of the American Episcopal Cathedral up the Avenue Georges V, near the Champs Elysees and in sight of the Eiffel tower.  It was a lively, vibrant congregation from what I could observe – a number of younger adults, young families – most of them American or British expats. I felt thoroughly at home.  We went up the street with red-veiled crosses,  vestments and palms to the accompaniment of African drums.  This was in Paris, where people are mostly pretty amazed that anyone practices any religion any more – probably we were seen as an American expat curiosity, but there were cameras, and delight, and a sense of holiday as we went by – again, in our way, we were a blessing to people’s Sunday morning in Paris, as we moved into our own more serious observance of Passiontide. 

            As I watched people in cafes snapping pictures of us I thought about what these public ceremonies might say about our continuing presence as Christians in an increasingly “post-Christian” culture.    Is there a call to be in the midst of a world that is no longer culturally Christian, and claim that original call to Abraham, the call to “be a blessing” to the world, by our presence and our practice, and to cultivate a way of living that might “preach” in its own way?  For us on Ash Wednesday, and on Palm Sunday, it was theater, and it wasn’t:  we were out in the streets because of the importance of the season and the observance to us, and because of a desire to share, not so much the doctrine of it, as the blessing of it  (One friend with whom I talked this over recalled the Celtic priests whose practice was to simply bless everything that they encountered in the pagan cultures they encountered: blessing wells and fountains, animals and families – whoever asked for a blessing – because that was what they did, as Christians). 

            As we walked up the Avenue Georges VI I also had a flashback to an earlier  “street theater” experience from my young adulthood – the All Saints Day processions around the Yale campus in the late 1970s, when Rick Fabian and Don Schell, well known now for such fresh liturgical expressions, were chaplains at the Episcopal Church at Yale.  On Halloween night the community would process around campus blessing various buildings and spots, following ancient liturgical forms, chanting, with incense and vestments.  Members of the Yale community were following in our train, in Halloween costumes and to the tune of bagpipes, and it all had very much the feel of a medieval street festival in the heart of Christendom and yet this was a very decidedly post-Christian campus community, and I expect very few of those following thought that we were anything but part of the show.  But at one point in the procession, as we paused for prayer,  I overheard one onlooker, observing us at prayer, say to his friend in some amazement:  “You know, I think these people are serious!”   

            And what if we are serious?  A serious blessing.  In all three of these examples, there was a sense of tremendous joy, presence and simple blessing.   The church succeeded in simply being present in the world, and visible to those who might wonder what it might be like to be as “serious’ and joyful as we were about the blessing we carried.    I believe that in our post-Christian era we’re likely to see more of these public liturgical expressions of faithfulness in community – and maybe it will invite folks to seek a blessing, and to wonder what it would be like to part of a community so joyful and so “serious” about our public presence and prayers   It’s a hope, at least:  appropriate for us in this season as in the one just past, as we aspire to be an “Easter people”.

Friday, January 24, 2014

Mainline Spirituality: The hymns I have "by heart"

A passage from Scripture I’ve come back to a lot is from Matthew 13:52  “Therefore  every scribe who has been trained for the Kingdom of Heaven is like a householder who takes out of his treasure what is old and what is new.”  Having been raised in a United Presbyterian congregation and having chosen the Episcopal Church as a young adult, I recognize that I have been formed in what social scientists are calling the “mainline” Protestant tradition., and that despite the mainline’s unfortunate and false image of being “God’s frozen people” (Harvey Cox’s phrase, in the 1970s), now in decline,  this tradition does have a strong heritage of faith that blends a respect for reason and individuality with a recognition of communal tradition, a sense of mystery and an image of a loving, sustaining God whose purpose for humankind is good, and who calls us to be our very best selves.  An important part of my formation was the hymnody of this tradition, and the many hymns I know “by heart” are often the deepest foundation of my prayers and meditations. 

  I was reminded of this by a recent adult forum teaching assignment that put me back in touch with the poetry of  Isaac Watts and Charles Wesley.    These voices are arguably from the beginning of the “mainline” Protestant tradition that we have come to know in the US.  Watts has been called the “Father of Protestant Hymnody” because he was the first to produce metric psalm settings in English that were actually beautiful and singable – and also among the first to write hymns about personal faith experience. Writing in the 18th century, Watts was a learned man,  a man of the both science and faith – in an era before these were considered somehow mutually exclusive choices.  Author of a popular textbook entitled Logic, or the Right Use of Reason in the Enquiry after Truth with a variety of Rules to Guard Against Error in the Affairs of Religion and of Human Life, as well as in the Sciences.  He was also a Nonconformist pastor, a man of deep faith, and a genius at rhyme.   (As a poet, I find myself in awe of the man’s ability to turn a line, to write rhymes that actually work without seeming forced – this is really hard to do in English,  as most poets know!) .    

Isaac Watts’s hymn Our God, Our Help in Ages Past provides us with a God-image, not gendered or culturally limited, that sings down the ages, and certainly speaks to me.  God is, for me, “our help. . . our hope. . . our shelter. . . our guide. . . our eternal home.  And the poetry of that hymn, recognizing the fleetingness of our lives and the eternity of God, has provided deep reassurance in times of loss and change – including now;  (“A thousand ages in thy sight/ are like an evening gone. . . .”) I hope what this hymn assumes is true:  that there is a God, who has been carried and known in tradition and who abides with us now – even when language, culture and practice shift.     Watts wrote over 600 hymns, some of them  a bit baroque and pietistic for modern tastes (“Alas, and Did my Saviour Bleed,” for example, which is in the LEVAS hymnal) – but they continue to speak.   I am helped each Lenten season by the invitation to contemplate the Cross as a mystery having to do with love. Watts explores in his hymn “When I survey the Wondrous Cross,” which ends in a beautiful poem of self dedication:  “Were the whole realm of nature mine/that were an offering far too small. /Love so amazing, so divine/demands my soul, my life, my all.”  It is a gift of grace to come to those moments in life when we really want to offer our whole selves to the Good Thing we hope God is doing in our broken world.  Watts’s hymn, which I know by heart now,  after so many years, gives me words for those moments.

A generation after Watts comes Charles Wesley, whose hymns come out of a profound “religion of the heart” that has been the strength of evangelical Christianity – a part of the mainline tradition, we often forget.   Evangelical in the sense of being a religion of the converted heart, that makes us want to share good news with the world.   Wesley wrote over 6000 hymns and many of them just don’t work in modern worship, being too embedded in imperialist ideas of mission from his era, or language that is sexist or militaristic (for example, his Easter hymn, “Christ the Lord is Risen today/ Sons of men and angels say.  . . . Love’s redeeming work is done/ fought the fight, the victory won” has been excluded from most of our Protestant hymnals and replaced by the more inclusive poetry of “Jesus Christ is risen today/ Our triumphant holy day”).  But Wesley too is the author of some of our deepest prayers.  Henry Ward Beecher wrote that he would rather have composed Wesley’s “Jesus, Lover of My Soul” than to be the richest man in New York or to have all the kingdoms of the world.   It is a “heart hymn” that speaks to certain times of life: “Hide me, O my Saviour, hide, til the storm of life be past/ safe into the haven guide. . . . “All my hope in thee I’ve found. All my trust to thee I bring.   Cover my defenseless head/in the shadow of thy wing. “   

I would echo Beecher’s admiration when I think of Wesley’s great hymn “Love Divine, All Loves Excelling”  which celebrates the deepest good news, that God’s love  is never finished with us – that there is always a better way to be for humanity, drawing us toward a “perfect love” that we can hardly imagine and that God is helping us with that, “perfecting” us in ways we cannot do for ourselves.   There is more to learn, more to celebrate, as we become God’s “new Creation.”   The life eternal begins now and carries forward – changing us as we are called to be transformative agents in the world around us   And so for me the last verse of Wesley’s hymn sums up with some meditative depth the spirituality that has formed me – a spirituality I hope we as a church can continue to claim even as our language and liturgy and cultural expressions shift. Wesley’s words bring together a vision for our best selves and for the reign of God:
“Finish then thy new creation. Pure and spotless let us be
Let us see thy great salvation perfectly restored in thee
Changed from glory into glory, til in Heaven we take our place
Til we cast  our crowns before thee, lost in wonder, love and praise.

I am very aware that our hymns are one of the things that feel like obstacles to seekers not raised in the church – we hear a lot about the problem of “classical music” just not being accessible to modern seekers.  A challenge for me, and for those like me who have been formed in this hymnody, is to stay in touch with the deeper spirituality that is carried in the best of our hymn tradition, both in the music and the poetry – and perhaps to find new expressions of that spirituality. Our best hymns remind us of a basic and healthy spirituality:  We believe in a God who ”has us”,  in the mystery of Incarnation and the love of Christ as there for us, even in the hardest moments of human suffering and despair.  We experience the Holy Spirit at work in the world, past, present and future, to heal, shape and transform.  We see a continuity between this life and the world to come.  These are spiritual values to  continue discerning and carrying forward.  We can fiddle with words that simply don’t work for contemporary public worship, but we need to keep track of the deeper spirituality that we come to “know by heart” in this tradition, and find ways to carry it forward.  Another invitation to “take from our treasure what is old and what is new. “ 

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

"Seeing Deeper" - "Come and See"

Also on the edow blog

In a frequently-broadcast “Christmas at St. Olaf’s” special from some years ago now, a chorus member recalls what the conductor told the chorus as they began rehearsals of Randall Thompson’s haunting choral work, Alleluia.  The conductor said something like, “Imagine that there is a chorus being sung all the time, just beyond our hearing, and when you sing this piece, you are joining that invisible chorus.”
I thought of this on the two nights last week when I was able to visit the Washington National Cathedral, during their week of experiential prayer opportunities that they called “Seeing Deeper.”    I tend to be a choral geek, so I chose the evenings when I could hear the virtuoso  Cathedra chorus as part of this event.  Others may have chosen tai chi or yoga or simply sitting and reading or praying in this beautiful shared holy space.  For me  it was wonderful being in the nave with no chairs – seeing the marble work and observing people being present to the place and the music in various ways – and with a sense that everyone’s way of being there was deeply “right,” whatever form it took.

 I really enjoyed moving around the nave –as the singing was going on -just walking up and down, around the great pillars and in the galleries, as this rich polyphonic music was being offered.  As I listened to the treble notes, gorgeously carried by the acoustics of the place, I let my eyes follow the upward reach of the gothic arches, and observe the visual rhythms of the vaults, and notice the fine, lacy stonework of some of the side chapels.  I’ve been in the Cathedral many times for many events, but moving, rather than sitting, in this prayed-in space, was a new experience.

            By Friday evening, when the place had been open all week, I really sensed a deepened spirit of prayer among those gathered. The labyrinths were laid out, and as  I listened to the music,of the Allegri Miserere,  the people who were walking and praying in the labyrinth seemed to be joining in a dance;  those who were sitting or lying on yoga mats, simply meditating and listening, were also tuned into something holy that the music and the space were carrying.  People were lighting candles, praying in the chapels,  sitting on the floor in the Great Choir as well as in the pews, some even crossing themselves with water as they passed the Baptismal font .

            This was truly an experience of corporate prayer  There were no words of instruction being offered about how to pray.  We knew how ; we were joining the chorus of prayer that goes on always, each in our own way. But in that place, together.   We were responding to the invitation that is always there – expressed in the words of Sunday’s gospel (John 1:39) , and offered to the world:  “come and see” what it is like, to dwell together in holy presence:  come, and see.

Saturday, November 30, 2013

Last day of the Pentecost Season: My Adventures with Scripture

Also on Episcopal Cafe

Today is the last day of the "green season" -- the season after Pentecost in the Church year.  And in 2013 it has been as long as the season after Pentecost can be with Easter so early.  Knowing it would be a long season, I  embarked in May on the Center for Biblical Studies’ “Bible in a Year” program; (more about this here) You read 3 chapters from the Old Testament, a Psalm, and one chapter of the New Testament every day. At this point I have finished through Ezra and Nehemiah and just moving into Esther and the Wisdom books, and I am just starting 2 Corinthians. I am going to take a break now for Advent s and move to the daily readings through the church year, picking up where I left off sometime later on in
2014. I find myself inclined to do this because of what I have learned, especIally now that I have read through most of the main story of Israel's relationship with God from Creation.
What I’ve learned, more deeply though I thought I knew it, is how compelling the story of Israel’s relationship with God is, and how human and distressing and appalling in places. We are seeing God often through the lens of tribal patriarchal cultures and sometimes there is violence and even genocide done in the name of God and it seems to be approved. And there is this thread which can be dangerous if taken too far - but it’s there in Scripture: The “deuteronomist” story line that explains the exile into Babylon by showing how Israel keeps turning away from the Covenant with God -- how God keeps calling God’s people back, and they keep messing up and they try again. “Again and again you called us to return” we say in our Eucharistic prayer -- and that IS the rhythm of the big story of Scripture, even when there are terrible moments. It is the rhythm of God’s relationship with humanity, and this is a God that for some mysterious reason WANTS to be in relationship with God’s people -- “you will be my people and I will be your God” -- the temple is cast down and rebuilt with rejoicing, the people know who they are and they keep forgetting. I’ve read in theologians as diverse as Verna Dozier and Hans Urs von Balthasar about this dramatic shape of the story but it has really been fascinating to “dwell” in it through this practice and I want to continue. I of course read it all primarily through the lens of my training as a literary scholar and reader of stories -- following the threads of the big story more than the often objectionable cultural pieces of it (most annoyingly for me the dominant voice of tribal patriarchy) in the way the stories are told. But the story of exile and return, falling away and being called back, burns through it all and I am now hearing the Scriptures read at worship with fresh ears, knowing that much more about the context and the tradtition. So I find I am reading each part of the story of Scripture in light of the “whole story” in which I have been immersed.
Meanwhile, my young adults Bible study group this fall has been reading the “Song of Songs,” whose refrain is “My beloved is mine, and I am his” - or “I am for my Beloved and my Beloved is for me.”. A rabbi we had visiting as our guest the other night confirmed what I’ve been reading in commentaries, the Rabbinic understanding of this book as a Holy Book, the “Song of Songs” as in the “book of books”. For the Rabbis it is an allegory about the faithfulness of God and the hope of a truly intimate and mutual relationship between God and God’s people that is established at Sinai. Steeped in her own tradition, the rabbi radiated a joy in being people who have been given the Law as a way of living faithfully with God. It was beautiful to see. I had known about the Christian mystical readings of the Song of Songs as an allegory of Christ and the church, or of the mystical marriage between the. Soul and God, but I am really finding powerful the rabbinic understanding of the story of Israel being about the possibility of real, loving relationship between a human community and their God. And the poetry is powerful.
I am open to this insight partly because a favorite artst and poet of mine, David Jones, has also written that ‘in the end there is only one tale to tell: ego amor mihi et ego illi (my Beloved is mine and I am his)./". I see more than ever how this is the story of Scripture as a whole, including the New Testament narrative of "the gospel of Jesus Christ" , which we’ll soon enter again from the beginning in the church year to come. I’m looking forward to pondering all these stories again, in light of the “whole story.”
So in short, I have been (in the words of the collect) “Reading, marking, learning and inwardly digesting” the story of Scripture. I commend this practice to all: It has been a rich, often challenging, but ultimately deep and and fruitful practice for me, and I look forward to pursuing it in fresh ways as we begin this new cycle of the Christian story, in this new church year.
(BTW the picture I've used here is a painting by Henry Ossawa Tanner of Christ and his mother studying Scripture - I love the intimacy in this picture of learning.   And also the sense of solidity in the form of it.  See more at

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Atheist Churches and Disciple-Making Congregations

Also on Episcopal cafe

I have been reading with interest about the new movement among atheists to found churches. (an example here) The movement sounds a lot like what we hear in our conversations about congregational development and vitality: Atheist groups are adopting the word “congregation” to meet a widespread craving for what one Atheist pastor calls “a really close knit, strong community that can make strong change happen in the world. And he adds, “It doesn’t require and it doesn't even imply a specific set of beliefs about anything.”
His use of the word “require” reminded me of a character in one of Mary Gordon’s novels who quips that “Episcopalians are not required to believe in anything but the beauty of the burial service.” It’s a joke, but there’s some truth to it: We too have shied away from insisting publicly on “required” beliefs, in the desire to invite seekers, but we do still say the creed, commit to the baptismal covenant, retell the story of salvation at every Eucharist. To get people in the door we are more likely to promise things like close knit community, hospitality, a commitment to outreach. I was groping around for what seemed to be to be missing here: what is the difference between an atheist church and an Episcopalian Christian church, if it’s not just about “required beliefs.” What is the point of church anyway? The emergence of atheist “congregations” requires us to look anew at that question, in our own congregations.
I would say that though the difference is obviously in part about belief --God v. “not God” -- it goes deeper than that. What attracts people to an atheist church is a spiritual “practice” of gathering and sharing values. “Practice” has of course been a buzzword of late in congregational development circles and I will return to this in a moment -- but I would suggest that the purpose of Christian congregations is not just spiritual practice for our own sake, but practice in the service “disciple-making”, and all that goes into it. What if we thought about our congregations, our nurturing, our welcome, our outreach, in terms of sustaining discipleship, giving people what they need in order (to use Brian McLaren’s words in A Generous Orthodoxy) “to be and to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the sake of the world.”
A disciple is someone who follows a master, who adopts practices modeled by the leader (“make disciples of all nations, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you”, Jesus says at the end of Luke’s gospel). And this is done in the service of a larger vision -- as our catechism puts it the desire “to reconcile the world to God in Christ.” What might it look like to use this as the basis for mission building and ministry review in our churches -- to ask “How are we doing at making and sustaining disciples of Jesus, for the healing of a broken world?” I’d suggest three ways we might think about this, in our worship, our community life and our formation, and the headings are “Story,” “Practice,” and “Participation”
“Story” -- We have a story to tell, and it is good news. How can churches help people to own this for themselves and for their lives? A practice that has been neglected in our denomination, is helping people to learn and own the story of Scripture. We tell this story at the Eucharist each Sunday and we hear a lot of Scripture read in church, but the energy for discipleship comes when we can see ourselves in the story of God’s work in human history, understanding context, history, and ways of reading Scripture. Becoming more scripturally literate, as individuals and as congregations, can help us see how God’s story is unfolding in our own time. The process of grappling with Scripture, using our imaginations and our reason to make sense of it for our time, can be both creative and energizing, and it connects us to others who have found Christian faith to be life-giving and exciting. I was excited to see the diocese of Washington adopting an online curriculum that encourages people to study Scripture as “the Story” . This is foundational to who we are.

“Practice” -- It is now well documented that vital congregations can point to particular practices -- ways that people live out their faith through prayer, service, discernment, in that particular community. These practices are not just about self improvement - they connect implicitly to a vision for discipleship -- what do we do to keep ourselves alert to opportunities to live out our Christian discipleship in our lives? What opportunities do churches provide for us to practice our faith, through prayer, discernment, study, service, hospitality? These practices are not ends in themselves, to make us feel better or even personally “closer to God.” They are about forming us as disciples of Jesus - whatever that may mean in our time. My favorite “practice” is the practice of the discernment -- finding ways to attend to what God might be doing and how we might participate in this.

“Participation” -- The more we read the story, the clearer it becomes that we are called, not to change the world all on our own, but to participate in something that God is doing. One of my favorite prayers in the prayer book ends “let the whole world see and know that things which were cast down are being raised up, and things which have grown old are being made new, and all things are being brought to their perfection in Jesus Christ. . . . (BCP 280) What if each congregation asked “how are we participating in the New Thing that God is always trying to do in us and in our lives? Where do we see this happening here, in the places where we find ourselves, and in our corporate lives?
Of course I am using language about “God” and “Jesus” and Scripture in laying out this vision of discipleship as the mission of congregations, but without being very clear about “required” beliefs. . I think we work out what we believe about God and Jesus and discipleship in practice, and that is why we begin with worship and corporate prayer. That is the experience that churches offer that differs from a community center or a neighborhood group. “Praying shapes believing,” we tend to say as Episcopalians -- so do our practices of discipleship. As we seek ways to “follow Jesus” we find out what we believe about him.

I wonder what it would look like if we used the standard of “making disciples” as a way of designing mission statements and reviewing ministry in our congregations. What would it look like for leaders to begin, not with the question: are we giving people what they want, in a tight-knit community? but rather “How are we doing at making and supporting disciples of Jesus? And what particular ways are we doing that in this congregation?

Thursday, September 5, 2013

What is Old and What is New

(also on episcopal cafe)
           In the upstairs choir room at our church, on the bulletin board, there is a set of crayon drawings by Sunday school children..   One of the Sunday school pictures has my daughter’s name on it.  Another has the name of her closest Sunday School friend.  My daughter is now 25.  The picture was probably made when those girls were in third and fourth grade, i.e. in 1996 or 1997.

The bulletin board on which the Sunday School drawings hang was once a room divider used in the undercroft , to divide up the various grade levels of Sunday school. Someone moved it up here at some point for storage, or maybe to create 2 levels of Sunday school in this space.  But  no one ever took the pictures down.

 And I find I can’t bring myself to take them down, either.   I feel sentimental about that Sunday School picture.  It reminds me of an era when I felt that my children shared a church life that was important to me, when they were part of a healthy church family, learning the basic stories of the faith and experiencing worship in community. It was the era when life in church was transforming me, giving me satisfying leadership roles as an educator and prayer leader, and steering  me toward a vocation that has been real and life-giving to me.  My life in those years was quite wrapped up in church, and I am still “active” in my congregation.  But the vocational path I started on in the 90s has also led me to different expressions and experiences of the Christian life. I still value and treasure that era of family life in church, and continue to be fed by worshipping with the next generation of younger families that have come. I come “home” to worship, I support this church financially, and I help out where I can with leadership.  But the congregation now is more a “home base” from which I go out, not the place where most of my ministry and social life are focused, as they were in an earlier time.

The room where these pictures hang is still called the choir room, and it is where the choir stores our stuff: robes and music, and where most of us vest. But it is no longer used for choir practice, either;   It is up a steep flight of steps, with no bathroom on that level, and the aging of choir members makes it harder for some of us to come up the steep stairs to this room, though it still houses a piano and metal file cabinets full of music. (As well as a number of tables piled high with music to be filed!).   The room  comes to life when the children’s hand-chime choir rehearses there, but their rehearsal happens in a space surrounded by clutter from the past. 

Certainly there is no longer the same kind of “Sunday School,”  no longer the large choir program that we had 20 years ago --  but the things associated with that era in our common life are still lying around.  No one (myself included)  seems to have the energy to  retire these reminders of the old way.  I have been noticing that many other churches I visit have the same kind of clutter lying around in their parish halls and meeting rooms.   It is the kind of clutter we stop noticing when we have lived in a house for a long time.  Just a lot of stuff that we aren’t really using any more, but we haven’t had the energy or a reason to move or toss or put stuff away.  And the sorting and tossing that would be required seems like more than we want to take on.

 I know something about the emotional energy this kind of sorting takes because in the past year I have moved our household from the home we lived in for 24 years, into a new and less cluttered space.  In the same year I have also helped to downsize and sell my mother’s condo, as she moved into assisted living.   Both projects began with a slow sorting process, a lingering over this or that thing or book or file or piece of paper that held a memory.  And revisiting those memories was important.  As my Mom was doing it, we took things slowly, even though her daughters were itching to get on with the move.  She needed to revisit those things, tell those stories, before tossing files and mementos into the trash, as she then did.   In my own sorting and packing, I found that after a time I Just needed to get someone to help me who wasn’t invested in the stuff, who had a vision for what this place would look like when it was cleared out, and how the space could work for the next owner, the new buyer, or in the case of our own move, for the next stage of our life as a couple and as a family.  The realtor, the decorstor, and the "College Hunks Hauling Junk" became important allies in the spiritual work demanded by moving.

 It is easy enough, from the outside, to say, “Just throw it all away, simplify and start over again!”  But in fact the process necessarily involves some real decisions about what to keep and what to toss.  My mother took comfort in knowing that her daughters would take some of her most valued possessions, and the process of adding those family treasures to my own household has deepened my sense of continuity between my new home and my origins, and the places I have come from in life. I kept boxes of family memorabilia, for example, knowing I had space in the new house to store it, and wasn’t ready to part with it yet;    The sorting out of “treasured things” from “stuff” is a long labor of love, and takes a lot of energy before the time comes to call in the “College Hunks” and say “just take the rest away.” 

            We have known for awhile now that at this moment in the life of the Church, there  are things that need to go, and things that need to be remembered, and the process of discerning which is which involves a conversation between the generations, some story-telling, some mutual listening, and a lot of emotional energy.    This is what Phyllis Tickle means  (quoting Bishop Mark Dyer) when she refers to the “rummage sale” that goes on in the church every 500 years or so, an event that she calls the “great emergence,” which we are in the  midst of now.

When I look at that room in our church building, I ask myself, “What is this room for, now?” And I find I don’t have an answer to that;  right now it is mainly a room that stores stuff from the past.  It will take some creative thinking, and conversation with a next generation of leaders, if it is not to remain simply a cluttered room, but a place where some new creative thing can happen in the life of the church. In this way it stands for the larger, physical presence of our particular congregation in the place where it is.  What is here that is worth cherishing and remembering?  What is clutter that needs to go?  These are serious questions that I think we need to be asking ourselves, as leaders and long-time members in congregations, who care about both the past and the future of the church.  And it is a conversation that needs to happen across generations.

When I last went up to the old choir room to collect my robe and music on a Sunday, I once again noticed those church school drawings still on the old room divider.   And  I thought of a saying of Jesus that deserves wider attention, in this time of transition in this church.. Asking his disciples how much they’ve understood of his teaching, he declares:  “Every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like the master of a household who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old..” (Matthew 13:52 (NRSV)   Words to reflect on and act on, as we move through this new time of “emergence” in the Church.