For The Someday Book

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Leaves from the Notebook of a Tamed Cynic by Reinhold Niebuhr, Westminster John Knox Press, 1929, 152 pp.

LeavesThis book came to me like water in the desert, finding me when my soul was dry. I read it in 24 hours on a clergy retreat when my soul and my ministry longed for refreshment. Niebuhr’s reflections offered it.

Leaves from the Notebook of a Tamed Cynic is a compilation of excerpts from Reinhold Niebuhr’s journals during his years of parish ministry in Detroit from 1915-1928. They are years of struggle and difficulty, when Niebuhr questions the value of the church and whether it can survive in to the future. He confronts the social ills of industrialization, economic stratification, and poor treatment of the working people that comprise his parish. He is unabashedly liberal in the face of rising fundamentalism. He gets discouraged, angry, frustrated and occasionally despairing. In short, he’s a pastor just like me, with a whole pile of doubts and discouragements about the work we share and whether it matters at all. It made me feel so much better to know that these problems are not new to me or to my era of ministry.

In his preface from 1956, he writes,

The modern ministry is in no easy position; for it is committed to the espousal of ideals (professionally, at that) which are in direct conflict with the dominant interests and prejudices of contemporary civilization. … It is no easy task to deal realistically with the moral confusion of our day, either in the pulpit or the pew, and avoid the appearance, and possibly the actual peril, of cynicism. (4-5)

That’s exactly how I had been feeling lately–that the Gospel I have vowed to preach is in direct conflict with all the common wisdom and desire of our day, and that I can either couch it gently enough to try and be heard or preach boldly and risk being dismissed as completely irrelevant.

The highest moral and spiritual achievements depend not upon a push but upon a pull. People must be charmed into righteousness. The language of aspiration rather than that of criticism and command is the proper pulpit language. (75)

So it must be gentle, but firm. Compelling by charm, not compulsion.

Niebuhr discovered in his first year long ago what I have as well: we can, we must, fall in love with the people.

“The people are a little discouraged. Some of them seem to doubt whether the church will survive. But there are a few who are the salt of the earth, and if I make a go of this they will be more responsible than they will ever know.” (11)

It is a deep love and appreciation for the faithful people of my parish that keeps me going, always. They are truly incredible and inspirational in their faith, and I would not let them down.

It is also companionship with other pastors that keeps me going. This book added a new companion to that list. To listen in on Niebuhr’s own struggles helped me feel less alone. He confesses to all the same faults I share: to walking past a home 2-3 times before having the courage to enter for a pastoral call, to wrangling inattentive youth in Sunday School, to preaching sermons that are tamer in delivery than in preparation, to frustration with the seeming impotence of the church, to tension with preaching economic justice, and to the failure to inspire people who call themselves Christians to step up and live into the teachings of Christ. I am not the only one to fail in these ways. Niebuhr was a great one, and he did too.

The book is full of short gems of observation about life in the ministry that also made me feel seen and known and understood. Here’s a sampling of things that I could, by shared sentiment, have written, though far less eloquently:

We liberal preachers … are too ready to attribute conventional opinions to cowardice. What we don’t realize is that the great majority of parsons simply don’t share our radical convictions. (141)

There must be something bogus about me. Here I have been preaching the gospel for thirteen years and crying, “Woe unto you if all men speak well of you,” and yet I leave without a serious controversy in the whole thirteen years. It is almost impossible to be sane and Christian at the same time, and on the whole I have been more sane than Christian. (151)

Then, as always, Niebuhr demands the most high standards of fidelity to the cross, and he speaks with the same tenor of theological compulsion that has always motivated me.

Liberalism has too little appreciation of the tragedy of life to understand the cross and orthodoxy insists too much upon the absolute uniqueness of the sacrifice of Christ to make the preaching of the cross effective. … It is because the cross of Christ symbolizes something in the very heart of reality, something in universal experience that it has its central place in history. … What makes this tragedy redemptive is that the foolishness of love is revealed as wisdom in the end and its futility becomes the occasion for new moral striving. (70)

This should be a classic on the shelf of every pastor, especially those of us who call ourselves “liberal” or, these days, “progressive.” It is a reminder of the high nature of our calling, and the low, doubt-filled and failure-ridden nature of our attempts to fulfill it. For me, receiving that reminder from Niebuhr in the context of his own ministry is both challenging and reassuring. I know I will return to this book again, and re-read it again when I feel discouraged.

Real Good Church: How Our Church Came Back from the Dead, and Yours Can Too by Molly Phinney Baskette, Pilgrim Press, 2014, 228 pp.

Real Good ChurchLet me start by saying that I knew going in to this book that Molly Phinney Baskette and First Church Somerville are the real deal. I got to know Molly when I served in Boston, and I was privileged to watch some of this transformation with my own eyes. I was there in the early years, when it was still fragile and uncertain, which makes it all the more exciting and encouraging to read about a church that is now thriving as a model for others. This book tells the story of how they did it.

I read a lot of books of advice for leading and transforming churches. Some of them sound like impossible plans only a consultant could concoct. Others promise that “if you just do this one thing, your church will turn around.” Still others offer a lot of theory, but not a lot of practical advice. Real Good Church manages to avoid all of those pitfalls. It’s packed with practical wisdom acquired from hard-earned experience, but it also offers a deeper reflection on the Spirit of God at work. The tone throughout is light-hearted and conversational, so you feel like you are carrying on a conversation with a friend in ministry. It’s a great resource.

One of my favorite insights comes early on–the need for clergy to be “Doomsday Pollyannas.” We must be honest about the realistic potential of demise, but also offer hope.

Communicating the urgency of doing things well and/or differently to our people, while also communicating how confident we are that we can do it. … What’s at stake is the death of the church for everybody, and what’s possible is the life of the church, for everybody already there who buys into the vision, as well as many more people who aren’t aware that this place and people are going to become an important part of their lives. (11)

I love this term and description, and I have found it true in the life of my own church. We are able to move forward best when we share both a sense of impending doom and impossible (or only possible with God) hope. She returns to this idea later, as well.

Dying churches are often churches with low self-esteem. Your task as a leader is not to build up the church’s self-esteem but to build up its God-esteem: its sense that God is guiding them and is a big stakeholder and participant in its life and future–their sense that God loves them and is hard at work, and visibly at work, among them. (72)

Another important insight running throughout the book is the connection between the church and its community.

Look for the action in your community, and be in the midst of it. Plant yourself there, be visible, build relationships. (75)

First Church Somerville did that with a Drag Gospel Sunday, participation in local parades and festivals, joining in the Red Sox excitement with outdoor viewing, office hours in the local coffee shop, and more. Baskette is clear that this is not a program for you to follow in your church, because they are rooted in the local community in Somerville and the identity of their congregation. However, every congregation can find the life and energy in their community and become involved. We can all shift our ministries to focus on “them” (those people who are not already active in the congregation) rather than “us” (church members’ tastes and needs).

The book has sections on everything from job descriptions to e-mail to worship to conflict to facilities management. The appendix is rich with examples of materials used at First Church Somerville. It radiates with the author’s creativity and energy for ministry.  I recommend it first for pastors, especially those serving churches in need of revitalization. It would work as well for lay leadership in those churches, but the sheer wealth of material might be overwhelming to a church council without a careful plan to absorb (and implement!) ideas slowly. You’ll learn a lot, enjoy reading it, and leave encouraged for the possibilities for the future of your church.

Rich Church, Poor Church: Keys to Effective Financial Ministry by J. Clif Christopher. Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 2012. 108 pp.

Rich Church Poor ChurchThis review was originally published at the Center for Faith and Giving, who provided this book to me for review and gave permission to share here as well. If you want more strategies to become a Rich Church, I recommend their work and resources highly. They are a ministry of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), a sister denomination to my own United Church of Christ.

We’ve probably all heard a convicting sermon—a message in which we recognize for ourselves how our lives have strayed from God and feel compelled to turn ourselves around, seek forgiveness, and try again. J. Clif Christopher’s Rich Church, Poor Church was a convicting book for me. With every chapter, I could catalog the ways in which my congregation has been following the bad habits of a “poor church.” However, like any good convicting sermon, Christopher’s book did not abandon me to my despair—he points the way to a future of redemption, with clear, practical, action and attitude oriented measures for churches to move from scarcity to abundance.

Rich Church, Poor Church has nothing to do with the economic status of the people who worship in the pews. What Christopher means by a “poor church” is one that is “always behind financially and searching for money, as compared to what I witness in churches that are not always struggling to find resources for mission and ministry (Rich Church).” (ix) The book catalogs the different behaviors and practices of these kinds of communities.

For example, one chapter talks about how Rich Churches focus on mission. Everything they do is about serving people, changing lives, making disciples and following Jesus. In a Poor Church, you will instead hear a great deal of conversation about the survival of the church, the need for more money, the costs of caring for the facility, and meeting the needs of the members who are already involved. Most powerfully, while the Rich Church is talking about what Jesus needs, the Poor Church is talking about what the church needs. (My own church’s recent stewardship and budget process failed miserably by Christopher’s measure.)

The chapters continue with discussions about debt management, communication, asking for support, being thankful, sharing information about giving, and more. Each chapter begins with a simple table, listing the practices of Rich Churches on one side and Poor Churches on the other. The chapters conclude with a set of questions for discussion, making this book ideal for group conversation. The book is short and easy to read, and would be a great tool in multiple settings of the church.

I’m planning to order copies for my leadership team, because we need to hear this convicting message, stop pursuing practices that are only making the problems worse, and be moved to change our ways and follow more faithfully, so that we can stop feeling like a Poor Church and start being a Rich Church.

The Advent Conspiracy: Can Christmas Still Change the World? by Rick McKinley, Chris Seay and Greg Holder. Zondervan, 2009, 151 pp.

Advent ConspiracyI’ll start with a confession of prejudice: Zondervan makes me nervous. They publish mostly materials from a more conservative theological position, and I often find their titles to be interesting at first, but disappointing or downright offensive upon closer examination. If Zondervan makes you nervous too, fear not. The Advent Conspiracy is the real deal. While you won’t find a progressive theology or inclusive language, you will find solid theology and biblical interpretation, alongside a commitment to overcoming consumerism and responding with compassion to the crisis of poverty.

The Advent Conspiracy starts in a familiar place: the feeling that consumerism has robbed Christmas of its sacred purpose.  However, rather than just passionately insisting that we remember “Jesus is the reason for the season,” the authors address the real pressures we all face around secular Christmas traditions, and invite us to practical, challenging steps to reshaping our experience of the season. They do not suggest we can easily accommodate Jesus in our otherwise secular celebrations, and they refuse to make peace with consumerism.

 

Consumerism requires our consciences to stay detached from the moral consequences of our purchases. We buy without thinking beyond the price and the promise of a newer, better self. Yet we ought not to deceive ourselves: this is a religion, and this is worship. (26)

In response, they issue four short instructions, in four short chapters: Worship Fully, Spend Less, Give More, Love All.  The chapter on Worship Fully looks at what we truly worship versus what we say we worship, and looks at Mary (including the radical Magnificat), Joseph, the Shepherds and Wise Men as examples of worship. The Spend Less section encourages us to look at all our spending and see if it is true to what we say we believe. It is not about avoiding spending, it is about being more intentional and spending on things that matter. They quote C.S. Lewis:

I am afraid the only safe rule is to give more than we can spare. In other words, if our expenditure on comforts, luxuries, amusements, etc. is up to the standard common among those with the same income as our own, we are probably giving away too little. If our charities do not at all pinch or hamper us, I should say they are too small. There ought to be things we should like to do and cannot do because our charitable expenditure excludes them. (61)

The chapter on Give More encourages us not just to give to charity, but to give better and more thoughtfully when we give gifts to those we love. They discuss giving relationally–gifts that are costly (not necessarily in dollars), honor the recipient and relationship. No more cheap junk to fulfill an obligation. Finally, the Love All section turns toward giving for the poor. It encourages all Christians to honor the God who came to live among the poor by showing a real and lasting commitment to serving the poor in the world today, especially highlighting a water project in which the authors are deeply invested.

The book has an accompanying DVD series, and a lesson plan for each chapter at the back. We offered it as a series at my church, but it was hastily organized and lightly attended. I would like to do it again, and do it better. This is a great resource, and I encourage more churches to make use of it.

Paul Sparks, Tim Soerens and Dwight J. Friesen, The New Parish: How Neighborhood Churches are Transforming Mission, Discipleship and Community, InterVarsity Press, 2014, 206 pp.

New ParishA colleague selected The New Parish for our clergy book group. I was intrigued by the title, because the church I serve is in many ways a neighborhood church. The endorsements on the book included such luminaries as Phyllis Tickle, Brian McLaren and Walter Brueggemann, all of whom offered glowing comments about the innovations it offered. However, I found it to be a helpful encapsulation of many things I had already been doing as a pastor in a neighborhood church, and description of much of the work we are already doing as a congregation. It is a good and helpful resource, but it did not live up to its description as “groundbreaking.”

The New Parish emerges from a group of congregations known as The Parish Collective. These churches commit themselves to living and serving as congregations in and with a particular neighborhood, basing their ministries on the needs and relationships with that locality. I found this to be an old idea made new again–for centuries of Christianity, parish-based ministry was the way of the church, with a church seeing itself as the primary vehicle for social service and spiritual care for a particular neighborhood or village. The difference today is that there are likely multiple faith communities and social service agencies in that same locality, and so partnership rather than possessiveness becomes more important. In my congregation, we see ourselves as a part of the downtown neighborhood in our small town, and we regularly engage in ministries connected to our neighborhood. We do so in partnership with a group of downtown churches, all located within a few blocks of one another.

I especially appreciated the insights the book offered about the ways that this new idea of parish ministry combats “the two most fragmenting forces of our day. The first can be called ‘the myth of the individual’ and the second ‘living above place.'” (23) We falsely believe that individuals exist autonomously, which is aided by our distance from firsthand experience of the impact of our existence (i.e., buying food disconnected from the reality of where it came from). The idea of the new parish returns the church to the location where it resides, and presses it into careful attention to the relationships in a particular place, overcoming the myth of the individual and stepping deeply into the place rather than living above it. Churches that belong to their neighborhoods avoid being places of homogeneity and consumer-oriented religion. They live out an incarnational theology, “just as Christ ‘became flesh and blood and moved into the neighborhood.'” (27, quoting John 1:14 in The Message)

The book traces a history of the church in prepositions: the church in (a particular community), the church of (a region, usually political), the church for (a missionary territory), the church with (a particular segment of society, like seekers). The idea of the new parish seeks to make the church “within and in-with,” meaning “within its place while collaborating with others in that place.” (45-46) The authors then offer a multitude of strategies, from walking the neighborhood to attending local functions to getting to know local business owners. This, in particular, was what I found less than innovative. Those are all things I have done throughout my ministry, in my current small town and even as an associate at a large urban church in a major city. In fact, a walking or dashboard survey of the neighborhood is the first assignment the seminary gives to every field education student I’ve ever supervised. Every few years, our church council participates, too. Perhaps the evangelical context, with its large buildings at the edge of town or by the highway, does not share that sensibility, which is why this appears more novel.

Another helpful section was the chapter on leadership. In a neighborhood parish, charisma, extroversion and high performance quality are less important in qualified leaders. Instead, the question becomes, “What is worth following?” The answer: “Character is king.”(166-167) A neighborhood leader must live with integrity, to be the same in front of a group as they are walking down the street, approachable and open and honest. I have found this to be very true in my context. My authority does not come from the polish and cleverness of my sermons, but from my day-to-day walking alongside people in their lives. Leadership, the authors say, takes the form of designing experiences that bring people together, conducting so as to bring together parts of the whole, and coaching with encouragement to all those engaged in ministry together.

As I said,  I think The New Parish is helpful and insightful, even if I did not find it revolutionary. Perhaps the idea of neighborhood ministry will be novel to some, however. I recommend it for its insight into ministry in a parish setting–new or old–and its ideas for how to better engage an authentic, rooted congregational ministry.

 

The First Paul: Reclaiming the Radical Visionary Behind the Church’s Conservative Icon by Marcus J. Borg and John Dominic Crossan, HarperOne, 2009, 230 pp.

First PaulI was so excited when this book came out that I ordered the hardback copy right away. (I almost always wait for the paperback to save money.) I had learned so much about Jesus from Borg and Crossan’s work on on the Gospels, I knew that this would be a rich resource for learning about Paul from their perspective. For some reason, though, this made its way onto my way-too-many shelf of books “to be read” and did not manage to come out again until nearly five years later. Still, it was everything I had originally hoped it would be—a critical, radical reassessment of Paul and his writings that will lay the foundation for preaching and interpretation of all the letters attributed to him.

Borg and Crossan begin with some brief observations on the different roles Paul plays in Protestant and Catholic theologies, then name their three foundational statements:

First, not all of the letters attributed to Paul were written by him—there is more than one Paul in the New Testament. Second, it is essential to place his letters in their historical context. Third, his message—his teaching, his gospel—is grounded in his life-changing and sustaining experience of the risen Christ; Paul, we will argue, is best understood as a Jewish Christ mystic. (13)

Borg and Crossan identify the authentic letters (Romans, 1 and 2 Corinthians, 1 Thessalonians, Galatians, Philippians and Philemon) as the work of the radical Paul, the disputed letters (Ephesians, Colossians and 2 Thessalonians) as conservative, and the non-Pauline letters (1 and 2 Timothy and Titus) as reactionary. Stories about Paul in the Book of Acts are a fourth Paul, with some parts more reliable than others. Borg and Crossan write predominately about the authentic letters of Paul as a radical follower of the radical Jesus, because he has had a personal life-changing encounter with the mystical Christ on the road to Damascus. Occasionally, they will offer a comparison to the conservative or reactionary Paul on issues like slavery and gender equality.

Taking Philemon as a model, the authors then demonstrate “How to Read a Pauline Letter.” They emphasize that readers must “remember that, when we are reading letters never intended for us, any problems of understanding are ours and not theirs.” (29) We must “turn letter into story,” the original story that would have been known and understood by the original recipients of the letter. In Philemon, that is the story of the slave Onesimus and his master Philemon. The radical Paul argues that equality must not be limited to the spiritual realm, but must exist in the earthly realm as well—that Philemon must release Onesimus from slavery, because it is incompatible with the way of radical love demanded by Christ.

The next chapter is a basic biography, constructed from insights in the authentic letters, the Book of Acts, and other historical sources for context. They talk about his likely education and background in Tarsus (even speculating about chronic malaria as the “thorn in the flesh”), his life as a Pharisaic Jew, his conversion at Damascus, the missionary journeys, and imprisonment. The chapter ends with interesting observations about the cities in which Paul planted churches, portraying them as dense, dirty places filled with tenement-like housing and persons displaced by empire. His churches began among Gentiles who were worshiping in the synagogues, not the Jews. Labeling it “adherent poaching,” Borg and Crossan say,

Our proposal is that Paul went always to the synagogue in each city not to convert his fellow Jews, but to convert the gentile adherents to Christian Judaism. And that proposal explains huge swaths of Pauline data. (88)

Paul’s letters can be interpreted much more clearly by these gentile synagogue-goers than by those who were strict adherents of Judaism.

The final four chapters explore and explain four core theological ideas in the radical Paul: “Jesus Christ is Lord,” “Christ crucified,” “Justification by Grace Through Faith,” and “Life Together in Christ.” Paul’s insistence on calling Jesus Christ “Lord” is a treasonous claim against the Roman emperor, replacing Rome’s peace through violent victory with Christ’s peace through the nonviolent justice of equality. His proclamation of Christ crucified is not a scriptural account of substitutionary atonement. Instead, it is evidence of the greatness of God’s love for the world, and the entryway to the resurrection. We participate in dying and rising with Christ, born again with a radically new heart for loving the world as God does.

The chapter on “Justification by Grace Through Faith” aims to “get Paul and his letter to the Romans out of the sixteenth century polemical Reformation world and back into the first century imperial Roman world.” (157) Borg and Crossan argue convincingly that Paul sees justification by grace as a message of God’s distributive justice, “that God’s Spirit is distributed freely to each and every one of us to transform God’s world into a place of that same justice.” (160) The argument about faith and works then becomes a concern by Paul for works-without-faith, not faith-without-works.

“Faith” means a grateful submission to the Spirit transplant of God’s own nonviolent distributive justice, which empowers us to will and enables us to work toward a reclamation of this world in collaboration with God. (184)

Paul’s work was always built around communities, creating collectives of new converts to follow life together in Christ, following the non-violent path of justice and peace together, in contrast to the domination system of the world. These communities practiced love for one another, sharing meals and resources, prayers and worship together.

The epilogue addresses speculations and evidence about Paul’s death, amid ongoing tensions with the Jerusalem community led by James. When I read it, much to my surprise, I felt the same sadness I feel at the end of any good biography with a tragic death. I was sorry that the empire, likely Nero, cut Paul’s life so short. I felt as though I knew and appreciated the man in a deeper way, and I grieved a tiny bit for his death, even 2,000 years later.

I should never have waited five years to read this book. It was excellent from beginning to end. I am a sophisticated, detailed maker of notations in non-fiction books that I read. There are countless stars and underlines here, because Borg and Crossan have such an ability to explain and evidence various aspects of the scriptures in ways I want to remember. Even without the book in hand to review, I walk away with a much better appreciation for Paul’s radical ministry of love, justice and equality. Anyone who grapples with Paul and all the baggage attributed to him should read The First Paul for clarity and hope.

 

The Spiritual Practice of Remembering by Margaret Bendroth, William B. Eerdmans, 2013, 132 pp.

Spiritual Practice of RememberingMargaret Bendroth is the director of the Congregational Library in Boston, and her job is to collect and curate the historical archives of the Congregational church, which includes helping local congregations reckon with their own historical artifacts, records, stories and more. This book is a beautiful theological reflection on that work, the spirituality of engaging our history, and what it is that we are doing when we interact with our past.

The Spiritual Practice of Remembering opens with the wonderful story of a tricorne hat encased in glass in the entryway of a church. By virtue of its age and connection to a legendary preacher, the hat had become somehow sacred. I think any of us who serve congregations with a long history know about those sacred objects that hover in hallways or display cases or even in sanctuaries. Their original users never intended them to be preserved—they were ordinary practical objects—but their age and connection to the past has endowed them with something akin to holiness.

Bendroth’s book doesn’t just probe the spiritual meaning of churches’ old junk, but invites us into a relationship with the past as a spiritual discipline. Judaism and Christianity have a unique relationship as “religions of remembrance,” who worship a God active in history, defined by events in time. However, modernism in Western culture emphasizes a break from the past, freedom to define one’s own identity apart from history, and a sense of time always marching forward. Our relationship with the past, then, is as tourists—we are “stranded in the present,” with the past as novelty or nostalgia, but no depth of relationship and identification. We have moved from a medieval faith in which the past and the present co-existed all around us, with the past able to break through and impact this current reality, to an understanding of history as progress that makes the past always different, other and inferior to the present. This historicism, also found in biblical criticism that privileges factual history over other forms of biblical truth, costs us a meaningful relationship with the saints of the past. Bendroth writes:

History for grown-ups is complicated. It asks us to balance sympathy and judgment, hero-worship and sharp-eyed criticism. It recognizes and respects differences across time, but also looks for honest points of connection. … Our ancestors have a lot to teach us. This is not because they were wiser or more devout than we are or were “better” Christians, though we can’t rule out such possibilities. It is because they can point us toward what is essential. (50)

Bendroth also tackles the commodification of history as both entertainment and possession. As technology externalizes memory (photos, recordings, even Facebook place memory outside of our own identity and community, into an external place), it has become less valuable. It has also come to rely less on imagination.

There is a thin line between approaching people and events through imagination and assuming that they are in fact imaginary. The first assumes that the past was “real,” with a separate integrity all its own; the second that there is no past at all beyond what we choose to see. (70)

One of the most interesting chapters was about the way American culture is built on letting go of the past, and American religion models this “historyless.” Our emphasis on experience over tradition has helped with a more religiously tolerant society, but it has also cut us off from rich resources that can come from conversation with the past. We need not be traditionalists in order to value tradition.

The Christian tradition itself is a long conversation about the declaration that “Jesus is Lord.” … A truly creative conversation builds on what has been said before, exploring nuances and suggesting different interpretations—but never assuming that the people who began it have nothing more to say and can be safely ignored. The living do not own the conversation any more than those past or those yet to come. (94-95)

The communion of the saints is a theological idea that helps us understand this obligation, the way we the living continue to interact with the dead.

The ancestors live on in different ways, sometimes as a deep undercurrent of sadness or disappointment, sometimes as a tendency toward suspicion of outsiders or resentment of authority. They can work in positive ways too, inuring a centuries-old congregation against panic or despair. (113)

When we recognize ourselves as part of the communion of the saints, we know that “all God’s people—past, present, and future—form a single, interdependent whole.” (115)

Bendroth develops and explores many concepts that I have vaguely and inarticulately carried for a long time. As a student of history, I find much richness in exploring the life world of the past, but I had never connected that to my fascination and spiritual connection to the communion of the saints. I am also someone willing to let go of much tradition in favor of connecting with the present and future, and this book helped me think through how to engage the past in a good and meaningful way. Her mixture of stories and exploration combine for a book that is delightful, provocative, novel and engaging. I recommend The Spiritual Practice of Remembering to anyone considering the way the past can invite us to a richer present as people of faith.

 

 

 

 

KONICA MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERAThis past Sunday was Pentecost, the day we commemorate the arrival of the Holy Spirit as described in Acts 2, a day often called the birthday of the church. It’s one of my favorite stories in all of scripture. The drama of the wind and fire, the many voices speaking the good news of Christ, the power of Peter’s preaching, the crowds moved to follow.

Inspired by this wonderful article by my colleague Rev. Emily C. Heath, I started thinking about what it meant to be a Pentecost Church. I want to be part of a ministry as vibrant and alive with the Holy Spirit as that second chapter of Acts. What happened at Pentecost, and can it happen in our churches today? Can we carry on the spirit of the Spirit? What would be the marks of such a congregation, a Pentecost Church?

(This is not to be confused with a Pentecostal Church, a tradition which traces its roots to the Azusa Street Revival. The marks of a Pentecostal Church include baptism by the Holy Spirit and speaking in tongues.)

Drawing on that original story in Acts, I’ve identified six marks of a Pentecost Church. These are elements of a church alive with the Holy Spirit, and could describe any church that aspired to embody them.

1. A Pentecost Church is touched by the Holy Spirit.

A Pentecost Church actually believes the Holy Spirit is alive and moving among the congregation. They anticipate that God will show up and do something to them and through them that will amaze and inspire.  This seems obvious, but I’ve been in plenty of churches that expect very little of the Holy Spirit in their worship services. Some churches even act as though they are hoping the Spirit in her wildness doesn’t show up, because it might mess with their plans and patterns. By contrast, a Pentecost Church expects the Holy Spirit to surprise  and delight, and also to provoke and disrupt. She may cause a spontaneous outburst of applause, or tears, or laughter, or an “amen” from the depths of the soul. A Pentecost Church gathers with the expectation that the Holy Spirit will join them, and watches with joy when the Spirit blows through.

2. A Pentecost Church speaks multiple languages.

The miracle of the original Pentecost was the ability to share Christ’s good news in all the languages of the ancient world. A Pentecost Church today must speak in the many languages of the modern world. That doesn’t just mean English, Spanish, Creole, Mandarin and Tagalog. Today’s “many languages” include the language of multiple generations. A Pentecost Church endeavors to deliver the good news to some in traditional worship and bible study, to others via Facebook and Twitter. A Pentecost Church pursues fluency in social media and popular culture, in books and movies and television characters. The church must avoid insider language that is only meaningful to those who already attend (see Rev. Heath’s article for a great explanation of this). While no church can be all things to all people, a Pentecost Church constantly works to translate the good news of Jesus Christ into as many languages as possible, so that everyone can hear it. Their translation breaks down barriers between young and old, rich and poor, in and out, faith and no faith.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA3. A Pentecost Church dreams, visions and prophesies.

Peter’s Pentecost sermon promises that “Your sons and daughters will prophesy. Your young will see visions, and your elders will dream dreams.” The thing about prophesies, dreams and visions is that they all move forward into the future. A Pentecost Church is not preoccupied with the past—it is captivated by the future. In a Pentecost Church, everybody has dreams and visions for what the church can be and how God will be calling them into bold possibilities. Young people have visions for the church’s future, and they are trusted with the power to execute those visions. Elders do not hold tight to current habits, intent to preserve their way of doing church for themselves. They also dream dreams, foreseeing the church living on without them in ways that are even more beautiful and holy than they could have predicted. By the power of the Holy Spirit, a Pentecost Church faces forward.

4. A Pentecost Church is visible in the community.

Pentecost was the day that the church went public. After the disciples and followers spent time alone with Jesus following the resurrection, the arrival of the Holy Spirit carried them out of their upper room and into the streets. A Pentecost Church understands its life as a public witness, a beacon of hope and a mission outpost for God’s love. Whether it is serving hungry neighbors, giving out clothing, taking a stand for social justice, responding to a natural disaster, marching in the local parade, or showing up at a city council meeting, a Pentecost Church is a visible force, a vehicle for the Spirit’s love in the world. They do not hide from the public eye, but strive to be a force for good in their local community. (Again, Rev. Heath’s article tackles this with greater depth.)

5. A Pentecost Church changes lives.

When the crowd/community witnessed the Pentecost preaching from Peter, the scripture says they were troubled and wondered what to do. Peter replied, “Change your hearts and lives.” A Pentecost Church is a church that changes lives—of members, newcomers, visitors and community members. The Holy Spirit comes to disrupt and transform us. A Pentecost Church that expects the Holy Spirit also expects people to be transformed by that encounter. A Pentecost Church anticipates that when people meet the Holy Spirit in worship and fellowship, they will be inspired to greater love, kindness, generosity and faithfulness. They will even be moved to abandon their fears, let go of old wounds, practice forgiveness, overcome addiction, and turn their lives around. A Pentecost Church is full of people who have been changed by grace, and continue to be transformed by love.

pentecost6. A Pentecost Church seems just a little bit crazy.

Changing your life in response to the Holy Spirit, or getting ridiculously happy over seeing someone else’s life changing, or telling people that you have decided to spend your cash and your weekends serving the poor, or spontaneously clapping and rejoicing in worship can seem like strange behavior. That first Pentecost, the crowd declared that the disciples were acting so happy because they had gotten drunk at 9:00 a.m. A Pentecost Church has that kind of joyous intoxication of the Holy Spirit that sparks carefree laughter, unprompted kindness and a willingness to do whatever it takes to share God’s love with the world. Don’t be surprised if a visit to a Pentecost Church leaves you feeling a little high. The Holy Spirit does that.

A Pentecost Church is full of Pentecost People.

This is the most important mark of all. A Pentecost Church is filled with Pentecost people–people who have been touched by the Holy Spirit, people whose lives have been changed by their encounter with Jesus Christ, people who see visions and dream dreams, people who venture out of closed church doors and into the community, people who speak both the language of God and the language of the world, people crazy with the joyous love of God. The Pentecost Church creates, supports and sends these Pentecost People into the world, carrying the Holy Spirit with them wherever they go, in love and joy.

What do you think? Is your church a Pentecost Church? Would you like it to be?

Last week, a beloved member of my congregation died. He was a prominent businessman and philanthropist in the community, so his death prompted a front-page article in the community newspaper. The reporter called me, and I offered a few words of appreciation. The article that followed was lovely, but it referred to me as his “former pastor.” I suspect the reporter intended to indicate that since the man was “former,” then our relationship was “former” as well. I probably used the past tense in describing him, my regular practice to adjust to the reality of death. However, we were just entering into one of the deepest and most holy parts of the pastoral relationship.

Funeral (1)

It only looks like this in movies, never in real life.

As your pastor, I accompany you when you die. Unless your death is sudden, I will come and sit with you and invite you to talk about dying. What frightens you? What gives you peace, and what peace do you need to make? What have you left undone, unspoken, unacknowledged? Can I help you tend to those things, or let them go?  Together in prayer we will hold the grief and gratitude for your life, the fears you face and the confessions you make.

As you approach your last breath or immediately after it, your family will call me. I will come and sit with them and with your body. I might put a touch of scented oil on your forehead to bless your body one last time. We will touch you as you grow colder,  pray that God will deliver you to peace and that we might have strength to confront our grief at your absence. I will share with them, gently and without violating your confidence, what you told me about your own death. It helps your family to learn that we talked about these things.

After they meet with the funeral director to tend to the details, I will gather with your spouse or children or grandchildren or closest friends. They are exhausted from the things of death—caskets and cemeteries, death certificates and disposal of property, phone calls and insurance. Often we sit around your kitchen table, or in your living room. I think about times I visited with you during your life, and I ask them to do the same.  As the stories flow, it’s like you are there with us. We smile and laugh, and we all cry together, too. I take notes. They tell me secrets you probably wish they didn’t, and I promise not to repeat them. Sometimes, if I knew you well, I get to reveal stories about you, too. Together we put aside the things of death to pick up the things of life again–your sense of humor, your pet peeves, your passions, your work, your love. If you were not always a nice person, we talk about that too. Honesty is important.

We talk about how to place your life in the context of God’s wider story of love. How was God revealed in your life? What faith did you practice? We read scriptures and listen to music together until we find just the right verses to connect your spirit to God’s Spirit. Before I go, I pray with your family, and we call your name, giving thanks to God for you.

Over the next few days or hours, I think about you all the time—washing dishes, praying, driving around town, listening to music, looking in the bathroom mirror. I almost always dream about you, and sometimes I think you speak to me in dreams. I read through the notes and scriptures again, and contemplate how to talk about your life and God’s place in it. When you are alive, you are dynamic, changing, conflicted, plural. Suddenly, the story is closed, the ending known.  I take a scattered mix of memories and images and senses and feelings and string them together to make sense of your unique, complex self—and of the presence of God. I pray that I can give your family back the words they shared with me, to replace the things of death with the things of life again.

At the funeral, my body accompanies yours from beginning to end. I enter with you, leading the casket into the chapel or sanctuary. When the service concludes, I stand a few feet from you while everyone pauses to say their last good-byes. I try to stand slightly apart, so that people don’t feel like they need to shake my hand. I don’t eavesdrop on their private farewells, but I see them touch your hand, call your pet name, kiss you on the cheek. I always fight tears.

When everyone else has left, I stay. I pray with your body one last time, just the two of us, before watching the funeral director close your casket for the last time. I walk with you to the hearse, stand by while the pallbearers lift you inside, then climb in the front seat to ride with you to the cemetery. When we arrive, I lead you and the pallbearers to the graveside, offering final words and prayers before you are laid to rest. The family often comes forward to touch the casket, to take a rose, to say one more goodbye. They drive away, but I stay behind with the funeral director. I watch until you are lowered into the ground. Only then do I leave your side. Only then might I be considered your “former” pastor.

But the truth is that I will always carry you with me. The threshold between life and death is a thin place, and when we have stood there together, we are forever linked. The holiness of accompanying you through the rites of death leaves a mark on my soul, even if I never met you in life. I may speak in the past tense and say, “I was your pastor,” but as I accompanied you in death, you accompany me in life. I remember you on All Saints Day, on the next visit to the same funeral home, hospital room, cemetery. I remember you when I hear that hymn or read that scripture or drive by your old house. And I still think of myself as your pastor.

Abide With Me by Elizabeth Strout, Random House, 2006, 294 pp.

Abide With MeOh, what a beautiful novel this is. It is a profound testimony to grief, community, ministry and the relationship between a church and its pastor. I need novels for myself, for my own emotional well-being. Sometimes, I have a tough time breaking down and working through my own feelings. The problems are too close and too complex and they feel overwhelming. A good novel lets me do the emotional work a bit vicariously–weeping, grieving, sitting in silence. Abide With Me was just that kind of book.

The novel tells the story of Rev. Tyler Caskey, a pastor to a small town church in Maine. It is the story of his marriage to an unlikely candidate to be a pastor’s wife, of their love and their struggles and her untimely death. It is the story of his daughter Katherine, age 5, and how his grief and her own break down in her life. It is the story of the members of the parish–the organist who wants a new organ and her husband reckoning with his unfaithfulness; the housekeeper who befriends him in spite of her shady past; the teacher and school psychologist who play out their own assumptions on him and his daughter, on and on. It is a story about the heavy, heart-wrenching work of grief, the toll it takes on a life to engage that work, and the even greater cost of ignoring it. In the end, it is a story of redemption and the power of community to move beyond rumor and gossip into love. It is a story of imperfection and vulnerability between pastor and congregation, told with hope and affection.

Strout includes many insightful gems from the life and mind of the minister, like Tyler’s desire for “The Feeling,” the “profound and irreducible knowledge that God was right there” (15)  and his reflections and comparisons of his own calling with that of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, which many a pastor has done (including this one). At one point, his sister accuses him of caring too much about the feelings of others: “If you’re always thinking of the other person first, you don’t have to bother with what you’re feeling. Or thinking.” (123)

When Tyler’s grief finally overtakes him and he breaks down in the pulpit, the organist subtly begins playing “Abide With Me,” his favorite hymn, while the head deacon comes forward and takes his hand. His seminary professor then tells him,

Your congregation, it seems to me, has given you love. And it’s your job to receive it. Perhaps before now they gave you an admiring, childlike kind of love, but what happened to you that Sunday–and their response to it–is a mature and compassionate love. (286)

I am blessed to serve that kind of congregation, and I was blessed to read about Tyler Caskey’s congregation, the way they cared for each other as pastor and congregation. Thank you, Elizabeth Strout, for Abide with Me.


About Me

I am a full-time pastor in the United Church of Christ, mother of a young child (B.), married to an aspiring academic and curmudgeon (J.). I live by faith, intuition and intellect. I follow politics, football and the Boston Red Sox. I like to talk about progressive issues, theological concerns, church life, the impact of technology and media, pop culture and books.

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