For The Someday Book

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Beyond Resistance: The Institutional Church Meets the Postmodern World by John Dorhauer, Chicago: Exploration Press, 2015, 158 pp.

Beyond ResistanceDon’t judge this book by its cover. It looks about as dry as can be. It’s not.

Don’t judge this book by its font. It’s annoying, yes, but you’ll get over it and the content is worth it.

Don’t judge this book by its subtitle. “Postmodern” is an overused, dated term these days, but the much of the content of this book on the state of the church is as contemporary as any I’ve read.

John Dorhauer is the newly-elected General Minister and President of the United Church of Christ, and this book lays out his perspective on the current state of decline in the American church. I read it as a clergyperson in the UCC eager to hear his vision.

What struck me first and foremost was that Beyond Resistance refuses to paint a rosy picture or offer a programmatic solution to the problem of church decline. This is an odd thing for a book, and it was initially a bit depressing. The author’s opening line is, “Let’s be honest… churches are dying.” (7) He then lists lower birthrates, aging property and “postmodernity” as the three key factors impacting church decline. While he does not try to define what postmodernity means (thank goodness!), he describes it as a cultural change “in expectations around what it means to be a person of faith,” (14) making note of three key factors of being “a postmodern.”

Disbelief in universal truth

Learning differently (i.e., not through written and spoken word alone)

Distrust of institutional authority

Let me pause here a moment to say: I find the term “postmodern” loaded with baggage from other disciplines and very dated. My philosopher spouse saw the book on the table and said, “How old is that book? Why are you reading a book on church change from the 1990s?” I wish Dorhauer had used another term–perhaps “post-Christendom” or “21st century” or even a neologism he invented. He later uses the term “Church 3.0,” which I also didn’t much like, but it’s at least better. However, the problems with vocabulary aside, the content of what he says is right on. It seemed obvious to me, because I clearly belong to the group he describes. However,  active, engaged, but older, clergy colleagues in a book group on this text were shocked and upended by this information about the worldview of so-called postmoderns. I was shocked by their shock, but it revealed to me just how vast is the divide between “moderns” and “postmoderns.”

Given that the church has historically been driven by its claims to universal truth and institutional authority, and Protestantism’s reliance on written and spoken word, you can see why the current crisis has occurred. However, Dorhauer insists that it is not a “rejection of Church as Church.”

This is not a denial of the value of a life well lived, enhanced by meaningful encounters with the sacred and shaped by like-minded people living in a committed community of faith with one another. It is simply the experience of coming to church, wanting to have a meaningful encounter, and walking out under-stimulated, bored, or having learned little to nothing. (20)

The second chapter argues that the church exists for mission, and much of our current malaise is founded upon our loss of our core sense of mission. However, Dorhauer never defines what he means by mission, and in my experience people hear that word to mean very different things. Does he mean acts of charity, caring for the poor and needy? Does he mean evangelism, converting people to the way of Christ? Does he mean discipleship, forming new followers who will walk in Christ’s way? The way he uses the term throughout the chapter seems to imply that he has only the first definition in mind–acts of charity and justice. If so, I find that deeply disappointing. While I agree that the church should always be about that kind of service and advocacy, our core mission is to build disciples AND build the Kin-dom of God. People don’t come to the church looking to help the poor–they come looking for holy presence and Jesus Christ, and we should be about making that presence known. Service and advocacy are one of the most important ways we do that–but only one. Dorhauer would probably agree with me here, but I was frustrated with the lack of clarity in the chapter, and the way service and advocacy seem to be privileged as *the* mission of the church. It is a frequent critique I have for leaders across our United Church of Christ.

However, lest you think I am only critical, the second chapter also contained one of my favorite sections. In his role as Conference Minister, Dorhauer talked with churches about these changes. When older, stable congregations talked about “becoming Church 3.0,” he told them frankly that they couldn’t. Instead, established congregations should seek mission partners who are about this new way of being church. That’s where the wisdom lies–with the establishment in doing tradition well, and with outsiders who are doing church 3.0 well. (40-43)

The third chapter is titled “Grieving, Believing, Perceiving,” which reminds me immediately of Walter Brueggemann’s excellent book Reality, Grief, Hope, which I have revisited in sermons, conversations and even our Indiana-Kentucky Annual Meeting theme in the last two years. The difference here is that Dorhauer takes on the truth-telling (reality) and grieving with a greater openness, depth and brutal honesty than I have seen anywhere else. It is painful, but also affirming to hear that we are not alone in our struggles. He shares openly about the shrinking opportunities for clergy and the feelings of failure. I felt heard and seen for the first time. Though the truth is depressing, it is liberating to hear it told, especially from the new GMP of the UCC. He gets it.

As he moves toward the hopeful–believing and perceiving in his rubric–Dorhauer names the current task in this time of tumultuous change as identifying the core values and practices that cannot change if we are to remain faithful to the Gospel.

The Church as we know it is going to have to live through open debate about what changes can and will be accepted, and what changes simply cannot be made. … Knowing, through the time of change, what is so important that, if it is altered, we cease to be is an essential task of the Church. Knowing what must be passed on through the sea of change that is coming is important. (56)

In his role as GMP, I hope he leads our entire denomination through this kind of rigorous open debate. It is sure to be painful at times, but it is the best ministry we can offer right now, I believe.

Chapter four focuses on the difference between Church 2.0 and Church 3.0. As he recognizes, others have written with greater depth on this topic. Dorhauer takes special care to note that this change is not an upgrade or adjustment–it is an entirely new way of being and doing. Chapter five tackles the difficult questions arising around church authority and clergy authorization. He addresses the crumbling model of a seminary-educated clergy, who are trained for a dying church 2.0 at great expense, while recognizing the ongoing need for accountability, oversight and development of new religious leaders for church 3.0.

Chapter six repeated the same fundamental problem of this book–using outdated examples or terminology for a concept or content that is actually quite leading edge. The chapter is about metrics and measurement in churches, looking beyond membership and money to the lives we change, the impact we make in our communities, and the ways our mission is accomplished. However, he begins by saying the church should be more like McDonalds (“Over 6 billion served!”), without seeming to recognize that McDonalds is losing money like mad these days, a franchise on a faster downward spiral of unpopularity than the church is. The ideas in the chapter are good–the illustration risks making them look old and irrelevant.

Chapters 7-10 turn toward the new expressions of Christianity sprouting up in our midst. He is deeply appreciative of these new Christian communities, but draws a clear boundary around calling them churches–because they would not self-identify that way, nor would a traditional church necessarily recognize them. They are generally small, with flat hierarchies, non-ordained leaders, non-traditional gatherings that don’t resemble formal Christian worship, and exhibit a commitment to openness with regard to Christianity and other faiths, a mingling of diverse ideas. Yet what Dorhauer concludes after his exploration of many of these communities is that they are authentic expressions of Christian community.

The gospel as we know it is in good hands. It is my hope that your own explorations of these postmodern communities of faith are no threat to the current expression of the Church and, in fact, are going to preserve the good news and make it relevant in people’s lives in ways that my church can’t. (118)

He offers validation that those newly sprouting Christian expressions are real and true versions of following Jesus, even if they are unlike any church we have yet seen. The final chapter offers helpful guideposts to churches navigating this time of transition.

As you can tell if you’ve bothered reading this far, this book provoked a lot of reaction in me. There were things that bothered me and that I would argue against, but those are surface matters like vocabulary and illustrations that made cutting-edge ideas seem unnecessarily dated. The heart of the book, its insights and truth-telling, is a great gift as we wrestle with the rapid changes afoot in the life of the church. This book makes an important contribution to the conversation. If you care about this conversation, I highly recommend it, especially if you are a part of the United Church of Christ.

 

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As I posted in an earlier, more personal reflection, I recently attended the Virginia Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church, the church of my childhood and youth, after having been a part of the United Church of Christ for nearly 20 years. One of the things that struck me in this brief mixture of my personal past and present is that both churches claim “United” in their title, a designation that is very important to their identities. However, I realized that “united” means something very different for each church, and their faithfulness to being united takes shape in unique ways.

The “united” in United Church of Christ speaks to our passion for diversity, inclusivity and openness. Our heritage (and our name) lies in the creation of a new denomination 55 years ago, from four distinct Protestant branches of Christianity. From the beginning, we did not have or ever expect unanimity. Our motto, drawn from Jesus’ prayer in John 17, is “that they may all be one,” and we covenant to live together as partners in spite of our differences and disagreements.

The “united” in the United Methodist Church also grows from a merger, but of a different sort. The Evangelical United Brethren shared Wesleyan practices and Arminian theology with the Methodist Church, and they united in 1968 to form one church in the heritage of John Wesley. They are bound by shared practices of class meetings, the quest for personal holiness and the social gospel.

When I was at the Virginia UMC meeting, I heard speaker after speaker emphasize that word, “united,” almost as much as we do in the UCC. It also became quickly apparent to me that that they were using that word to evoke a very different image of unity. The “united” of United Methodism is about a shared fidelity to the theology and legacy of John Wesley. It is about a commitment to follow his disciplines (“methods”). It is about loyalty to a way of life and to the authority of the church and its leaders. This unity emphasizes the importance of the body, its theology and identity, above that of any one individual’s ideas or customs. Their unity cultivates the virtues of humility, loyalty, faithfulness and discipline.

At my friend’s ordination, she received a certificate detailing her ordination lineage: “John Wesley ordained Thomas Coke, who ordained Francis Asbury,” who ordained someone else and someone else in a straight, direct line to the current UMC bishop who ordained my friend. It was an inspiring thing to see, but it also made me realize how different our understandings of ordination are. There could never be such a document for me, or any of my Congregational colleagues. We have to have more than one clergy present, but all those present participate, along with the entire gathered congregation. Our authority does not come from a lineage handed down over time, but from a congregation that calls us up and out.

To be united in the UMC is to be a branch of a distinguished oak tree. The tree is formidable, alive, holy. It provides shade and comfort and strength and orientation. Much like John 15:5: “I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing.” The tree grows from one root (Christ, as preached by Wesley), and the church is united because they are all branches of the same tree. Their unity grows by strengthening the tree, and making sure not to be cut off from the nourishment of the root. The signs of unity and wholeness are the growing tree, bearing more fruit.

The “united” in the United Church of Christ means something very different. Instead of a solid tree, I imagine us like a big tent. Our unity comes from welcoming more and more people into the big tent with a giant “y’all come!” As the family picnic grows, we throw up a few more poles and a few more yards of canvas to make room for the new folks. We set up extra chairs and scrounge for more plates. Nothing matches–not the tables or the silverware or even the tent fabric. Most people bring their own chairs to rest in, but we still all mingle together. Sometimes it’s awkward, sometimes it feels like we have very little in common except our commitment to be welcoming and to make sure everybody has a place in the tent. But we are united, no matter our diversity, because we will keep making room for one more, and we won’t cut people off as long as they want to be in the tent with us.

Rev. Oliver G. Powell famously described the UCC in 1975 as “a beautiful, heady, exasperating, hopeful mix!” We are proud to be united with one another, and we work hard to keep growing the tent so that more people can join the party. We are united not by a shared history or theology or lineage, but by our stubborn refusal to leave anyone out and a fierce commitment to one another as fellow followers of Christ. Our unity cultivates the virtues of hospitality, diversity, partnership, flexibility, openness and inclusivity.

There is no right or wrong, better or worse in these different understandings of “united” churches, but I imagine that we often talk past one another when we speak of our practices of Christian unity. Both cultivate important Christian virtues. Both also foster challenges and even vices. I imagine we could both learn much from one another, for the purpose of uniting all Christ’s followers as one, whether tent or tree.

Embracing our newly ordained sister on the conference floor.

Two weeks ago, I spent the weekend at the Virginia United Methodist Annual Conference, the church of my childhood and youth. I was there to celebrate the ordination of my best friend since junior high school, and it was the honor of a lifetime to share in that special moment of the laying on of hands with her. That visit also brought me back in touch with dozens of people that I had known and loved. I got to see women clergy who had inspired me to ministry, old pals from high school and college, pastors of my home church, camp counselors I worked alongside over several summers, my campus ministry chaplains, former Sunday School teachers and youth group leaders, the pastor who officiated our wedding, and even a few old boyfriends (and their parents). My parents were there too, and for the first time in many years I found myself  best known as their daughter.

I left the United Methodist Church and found my way to the United Church of Christ almost 20 years ago, in my final two years of college. I felt angry and wounded at the time, and it was a painful separation for me. I had experienced my call to ministry in that community. I felt known and loved in that body. I loved all those people that had shaped me, but God was calling me out. I stayed connected to people until I left for seminary in California 15 years ago, which was the last time I saw most of these UMC friends. This trip back for the ordination blended the experience of a high school reunion with an odd glimpse of the road not taken.

What struck me most, the whole time I was there, was how much I felt out of place. The experience was entirely internal, because everyone there greeted me warmly and welcomed me home.  I was surprised and delighted to see how many people recognized and remembered me, even though I had been gone so long.  I had an amazing time catching up with everyone, hearing about their ministries, exchanging pictures of children and grandchildren. We had found each other on Facebook in recent years, so that made the reunion even more meaningful.   Most of my old friends shared my theological and social concerns, so there was no tension or inquisition about why I had left.  The difference between us is that I had left the tribe.

And, at the risk of alluding to Frost one too many times, that has made all the difference.

The first time I walked into a UCC congregation, I was overwhelmed with a feeling of being at home, among “my people.” Even though I had known real love and community and faith formation in my United Methodist upbringing, I discovered in the United Church of Christ that I  fit in effortlessly. My theology and ecclesiology were not outsider opinions—they were core values. The vision of Christian mission in the UCC matched my own vision for my ministry and my Christian life. Rather than a reaction against the church of my childhood, my departure was more about being drawn into another one. I had found my tribe.

Returning to my United Methodist roots for this occasion allowed me to share my deep appreciation and love for those who nurtured me in the faith. The pain of old wounds had faded for me a very long time ago, but this reunion provided a time of healing. In the intervening years, my old friends have been drawn in and formed by their tribe, shaped and molded in accord with the values of Wesley’s great heritage. At the same time, my UCC tribe has been shaping me in the ways of Reformed and Congregational life. That is the role of our tribes—to form us. I felt out of place in that gathering because I was out of place, having been shaped for 20 years by a different tribe’s values and practices. I am grateful that I have not spent all my energy fighting that formation simply because I was in the wrong tribe.

I am equally grateful for the way my former church loved and cared for me, for the shaping gifts of their tribe to me and for the powerful witness and ministry they offer in the Christian community. I delight in seeming my friends come alive within the shaping influence of their tribe, even as I claim, with joy, a different path. Thanks be to God for my tribe, and for theirs.

The United Church of Christ in the Shenandoah Valley: Liberal Church, Traditional Congregations by H. B. Cavalcanti, Lexington Books: 2010, 155 pp.

It was a personal interest and an author’s generosity that led me to this book. I stumbled upon an article about it through my “Google Alerts” for the United Church of Christ. The article was in a local paper from the rural Shenandoah Valley of Virginia, where I went to college, interviewing an author from my alma mater (a public university) who had written a book about my denomination. It was in the Shenandoah Valley that I first discovered the UCC, and I attended several churches there, including one in particular that inspired me to seek membership and ordination in this denomination that I now deeply love. Compelled by the intersecting factors of my alma mater, my first UCC church and the Shenandoah Valley, I wrote to the author to express my excitement to read the book as soon as I could get it through a local seminary library. He generously sent me my very own copy.

The book tackles a question that haunts the United Church of Christ, particularly in areas of the country where historic churches (and their cultural traditions) predate the UCC and its progressive leanings. (This review presumes a basic knowledge of UCC history. If you are unfamiliar with it, you can find it here.)

How fully have United Church of Christ congregations embraced these commitments? How have their local traditions in worship, outreach or service been impacted by them? Could local congregations whose origins precede the UCC’s be more attached to older identities? … To what extent are United Church of Christ congregations the local expression of a united and uniting, multiracial and multicultural, accessible to all, open and affirming and just peace church?  (2)

This book tries to answer that question by a concrete look at the churches of one association, and a close examination of its churches and their local practices and concerns.

In my correspondence with Dr. Cavalcanti, I learned that he began this book as an outsider to the UCC. His background is in the Brazilian Baptist church (a mission of the Southern Baptist church), where he was ordained many years ago, before his academic career. His partner was raised in the UCC, but the author was not active in any church during the time he was researching and writing this book, except for attending all the Shenandoah Valley UCC churches for research. While his research opened the door for him to return to church through the UCC, what makes this book so interesting and compelling is his outsider’s perspective, the simple sociological viewpoint based on statistical measures, detailed interviews and rigorous observations. Many UCC clergy, theologians and seminary professors have pondered this same question, but I have never read a sociologist (in the context of a public university) examine it.

This outsider status functions in two ways in the book. First, Cavalcanti writes notes and descriptions of the UCC and its culture that seem obvious to insiders like me. The observations he draws from worship experiences, church newsletters and descriptions of annual events like church picnics and Homecoming Sundays seem almost uninteresting to those of us who live those realities all the time. One whole chapter is “A Year in the Life of a Church,” and it could have been written about my church or any of hundreds of others in the UCC or many other mainline Protestant churches, especially smaller, historic ones. There were Easter egg hunts and Christmas pageants, hospitalizations and funerals, yard sales and Vacation Bible School, choir practices and annual business meetings.

I did not need to read this book to know what goes on in the church throughout a year. There was no new insight or information there. And yet, that was one of the best parts of the book. There is something quite affirming and uniting about seeing those descriptions in print. It affirmed the basic, ordinary, unheralded work that the church does year in and year out to tend to the members of its community. By a close examination of one church, it described the reality of so many churches, and made me feel a sense of connection to all those other congregations out there in the UCC, to their pastors and leaders who are doing the same work we are doing, facing the same struggles and delighting in the same rewards. This book captures, for history, a window into my life and the life of so many other churchgoers and church leaders. It unites us as a denomination based on our shared experiences of ordinary church life.

Second, the outsider’s perspective Cavalcanti offers creates a much more realistic, measured assessment of the original thesis question about the gap (real or perceived) between the local church and the national bodies. I currently serve in the Kentuckiana Association of the UCC, and my association is similar to the Shenandoah Association in many ways–historic churches with diverse histories, smaller and more rural settings, and a theological and political culture in our members that is much more conservative than our national representatives. I suspect it mirrors many local associations throughout the UCC. While my theology and politics align closely with our historic UCC commitments outlined above, I find myself standing in between the local church and the national church to act as interpreter. When insiders talk about the separation, we are caught up in the act of defending one side to the other, trying desperately to bridge the gap or push it closed. Cavalcanti’s outside perspective approaches the question without all our anxieties and defensiveness.

In the end, he concludes that many of the local churches of the Shenandoah Valley Association, especially those formed before the merger, do not reflect the priorities of the national UCC. He offers the most astute description of the disconnect that I have heard:

An important trait of United Church of Christ identity in the valley is the sense of outside-ness that still pervades the older congregations. … They do not see themselves as stakeholders in the making of that history. It is not necessarily that they do not feel like they belong to the United Church of Christ, but rather that the national church is not a natural, organic extension of their local religious life. … In that sense, the national structure exists as an autonomous actor with its own separate agenda. (127)

On the other hand, those churches formed after the 1957 merger usually identify quite strongly with the priorities of the national church.

For Shenandoah Association congregations that were founded as United Church of Christ, the relationship with the UCC is wholly unproblematic. For the most part, they are the local expression of the national church. Their histories reflect its journey. (130)

I think that summarizes my experience of the relationship between the local and national churches in every association of which I’ve been a part.

In the end, it is clear in reading this book—and in experiencing the lived reality of local UCC churches and associations—that the five historic commitments might not be what unites us, but we are united. Cavalcanti offers some concluding thoughts on the five characteristics that unite all the churches he studied in the Shenandoah Association, regardless of their political or theological orientation. I believe those same characteristics apply throughout the UCC.

  • The UCC is evangelical: no matter how we understand him, Christ is always the center of our work.
  • The UCC is confessional: worship is an act of reverence, to be treated with a sense of formality and sacredness, regardless of style, size or theology.
  • The UCC is fiercely independent: each church stands proudly on its own two feet, claiming its own heritage and freedom, its own strengths and weaknesses.
  • The UCC is eminently practical: each church has much wisdom about how to be a church, how to do the work of worship, care, education, fellowship and finances at the local level. (This is the shared sense I got in the description of “A Year in the Life of a Church”)
  • The UCC is caring: every church cares for its members and its community, striving to attend to the real matters of ordinary life—sharing meals, celebrating milestones, assisting with emergencies, helping with education and housing, marrying and burying. (132-134)

Across our theological and political divisions, from traditional historic churches to new and experimental ones, at the local level and the national setting, we are bound together by these shared practices and commitments. There is something that unites us, and Cavalcanti’s research helps explore and explain it. This book would be an excellent resource for any local pastor or leader interested in the dynamics of the UCC in a given association, or another “outsider” trying to grasp an image of this wild and diverse thing that is the UCC. Even more, Cavalcanti’s work should inform the work of all our judicatory staff at the Association, Conference and National settings of the church. There is much more to explore as we consider what unites us. It is a joy to read, and an insightful look at our local churches that both acknowledges their struggles and uplifts their ministries.

I am addicted to flash mob videos, especially the ones that feature seemingly random groups of people coming together in public places to sing and dance. They just seem full of such joy and beauty and delight. Improv Everywhere does excellent pieces. Some of my other favorites are the Glee-inspired “Don’t Stop Believin'” and “Do Re Mi” from The Sound of Music in a train station in Antwerp, Belgium.

But this latest one really got me thinking. It comes from the Opera Company of Philadelphia as part of the Knight Foundation’s Random Acts of Culture. Six hundred and fifty singers gathered at the Macy’s store in downtown Philadelphia and burst into a full-voiced rendition of the Hallelujah Chorus from Handel’s Messiah. It was awe-inspiring and moved me to tears. Watch it. Please. You don’t want to miss it.

It is my secret longing to be a part of a song-and-dance flash mob someday, because the whole thing just looks like so much fun. This experience at the Philadelphia Macy’s was fun too, but it was more than fun. It brings tears to your eyes, because  the power of the music and the message sweep you up in an encounter with something transcendent. It is sanctified—the voices resonant in that secular space sanctified that shopping center, even if only for a few minutes. I imagine the experience of being there must have felt holy.

And so an idea is beginning to take shape in my mind. Could we in the church take a lesson from the flash mob craze? Could we take an experience of excitement, welcome, even transcendence, directly to people, right where they are? Could we use the flash mob as the newest evangelism tool? Think about it: church folk emerge from the crowd, looking just like everyone else, until they burst into song and dance. The crowd is excited, entertained, intrigued. They want to be a part of it. They see that we Christians have joy, that we look just like they do, that we don’t take ourselves too seriously. Maybe they even see God’s presence in the world around them in a new way. Maybe we sanctify a space, just for a moment or two. Maybe some of that crowd wants to be a part of something that looks so fun, so amazing, so connected, so much bigger than one person. Maybe the video goes viral, and more people get the message about a different kind of church, a different kind of Christianity, that welcomes you “no matter who you are or where you are on life’s journey.”

Here’s my proposal:

Let’s do it–at UCC General Synod 28, July 1-5, 2011, Tampa, FL

It would take a lot of people, at least some of them with talent, to pull this off well. But if any church has the attitude, the talent and the sense of humor and whimsy to pull it off, our United Church of Christ does. We could do it on Synod Saturday, at some venue in Tampa, and get video to set loose on the web. What’s the worst thing that happens? We all have a great time, and a bunch of random people get to know something about the United Church of Christ.

What do you think? Are you in? Do you want to participate? Do you have ideas for songs, places, people that would have expertise and ideas to share? I’m serious about considering this idea. If enough friends and followers seem interested, I’m going to reach out and see about making it happen—so let me know what you think!

Yesterday was my first day back from a wonderful vacation. I met a friend at a mountain cabin for a week of reading, resting, writing, praying, singing, eating and enjoying God’s beautiful fall foliage. Although I returned to town on Saturday and even preached on Sunday, I did not yet feel ready to be back at work in the office facing so many competing demands. I was dreading Monday.

I almost never dread a work day, but I knew that my week off was about to send me careening into a pile of unreturned phone calls and e-mail, unopened mail, last-minute preparations for the night’s Council meeting and writing a stewardship letter and newsletter announcements. There was nothing in the day that I was looking forward to. I also knew that the day in the office would be full of interruptions and distractions, which I expected to leave me feeling frustrated and behind schedule.

But God is good, and sometimes sends us just what we need to remember why it is we do what we do. Yesterday was one of those amazing days in ministry, full of random happenings that reveal the workings of the Spirit and bless a pastor’s heart. A wise pastor once told me that ministry happens in the interruptions, that God lives in the interruptions. I give thanks to God for all of yesterday’s interruptions.

  • A man called on the telephone seeking prayer. He didn’t want anything else, but he said he needed us to pray for him, and that he would pray for us as well. He declined to provide details, but said it was serious, it was nothing new, and it was no big deal for God to handle. I was touched by his quiet confidence and witness of faith in the power of prayer.
  • A man rang the doorbell. He announced he was a concert pianist seeking practice space. I said that we were open to the possibility, but he would need to make arrangements with our musician. As his story unfolded, I realized he was visiting from out of town. He was looking for a place to play, just for today. His wife was a retired UCC pastor, so he sought and found our church. For the next two hours, I sat in my office and enjoyed a beautiful impromptu recital of Handel, Chopin and Mendelssohn on the grand piano outside my door.
  • One of the unreturned phone calls was from a woman whose father-in-law had been a long inactive member of the church. When he died two years ago, I officiated at his funeral. She called because she and her husband had decided to make a gift of $500 to charity in lieu of an extravagant Christmas this year. She sought my advice on local charities (including our church’s soup kitchen) and how to contribute in the most meaningful way. We talked deeply and passionately about generosity, compassion and hope.
  • A woman from across the country, who had become my friend on Facebook because she was trying to learn about the use of social media in ministry in the UCC, wrote to me to let me know that she and her husband had decided to become members of their local UCC congregation this coming Sunday. She shared her appreciation for my online friendship and openness, and for my willingness to connect with a stranger in the name of Christ’s church.
  • A young woman wandered into our building and found her way directly to my office. Her face was swollen and bruised, her eye blackened. She confessed that she had just been married and moved to town, and her new husband had done this to her. A copy of the completed police report was in her hand. Her family was ready to welcome her home, but they were out of state and she had no money for transportation. They advised her to find the closest church and ask them for help. I connected her to the local domestic violence shelter, who offered her safe haven and assistance in traveling back home. I was so grateful that our door was open when she needed us.
  • After the long evening meeting, I had the chance to check in with a church leader in the parking lot. Normally a private person, this leader is not one to seek counseling or make public family concerns. In the dark of the parking lot, a private person found space to open up about a family crisis, and we talked for nearly 30 minutes. I was able to listen, offer prayer and support, and will be able to better attend to this family’s needs as a result. I felt honored to be invited into this painful situation and vulnerable heart.

Somehow, amid all that beautiful interruption, I also managed to get the Council preparation done, stewardship letter written, phone calls returned, mail opened and a bit more. God’s work is such a gift.

I am so grateful for the opportunity to be in ministry, to participate in God’s work of hospitality, healing, hope-building. I give thanks for the church that pays me just to be there and attend to these moments and afforded me the privilege of saying “yes” to all these voices of need. I marvel that in our secular world full of negative images of Christianity, people still turn to the closest church for compassion, whether as giver or receiver of aid. I praise God for beautiful music, for faith in the power of prayer, and for the healing of wounded hearts. I ask forgiveness for ever dreading a day in God’s service, and ask God for many more days to do this work, and many, many more interruptions.

This is a sermon I preached at our United Church of Christ Conference Annual Meeting in June. The texts were 2 Peter 3:13 and Genesis 32:22-32, and the theme of the Annual Meeting was “Transformed Lives, Changing Church, Responsive God.” The pictures in the post were chosen by me and displayed on a screen behind me during the sermon.

“But according to God’s promise we are waiting for new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells.” — 2 Peter 3:13

That’s our theme scripture for this Annual Meeting. And I have to be honest, the first thing I thought of when I contemplated that scripture was the Great Pumpkin.


You all are familiar with the Charlie Brown and the Great Pumpkin, right? The ever-faithful and devoted Linus believes that every year on Halloween the Great Pumpkin rises out of the pumpkin patch to give toys to all the children. Full of hope and expectation, Linus explains to Sally that the Great Pumpkin chooses just one pumpkin patch every year for his visit—the one that is the most sincere. He convinces Sally to wait with him, saying,

“He’s got to pick this one, he’s got to! I don’t see how a pumpkin patch could be more sincere than this one. You can look all around, and not a sign of hypocrisy. Nothing but sincerity as far as the eye can see.”

They wait and wait, and all they see is a certain incorrigible beagle. Sally is furious at missing trick-or-treat. She calls Linus a blockhead, and demands restitution. But Linus perseveres in his sincerity: sitting in the pumpkin patch all night, waiting, hoping, trusting that the Great Pumpkin will arise and he will be vindicated.

According to God’s promise, we are waiting for new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells.

Oftentimes, I think that in our anticipation of a church for a new time, for transformed lives and changing conference and even a responsive God, we are like Linus waiting for the Great Pumpkin to rise out of the pumpkin patch. We seek out the most sincere church we can find—the one that practices what it preaches, the one that doesn’t exclude anyone, the one that serves the community, the one that genuinely welcomes all—and we sit in all our greatest sincerity, waiting, hoping, trusting that the Responsive Great Pumpkin God will arise and reward us.

Like Linus, our utmost sincerity has yet to vindicate us, as we face another Annual Meeting with reports of decreased membership and budget shortfalls and decline, decline, decline. So we wait again, and wonder if Sally is right—we are just a bunch of blockheads.

What I would like to offer today is another image, a different story about how God brings about a new church for a new time. And that is the story of Jacob.

Jabbok River

Good old Jacob. The original “Jake the Snake,” and a trickster of the highest order. He cut his teeth swindling his brother Esau—first convincing him to give up his birthright for a bowl of porridge, then later wearing a hairy costume to convince his blind father Isaac that he was Esau and wrangle out of him Esau’s  rightful blessing and inheritance as the eldest son. Esau understandably threatened to kill him the next time he laid eyes on him, so Jacob took off.

He ended up at the home of his uncle Laban, where he immediately falls in love with his cousin Rachel. He works seven years to earn her hand, but Laban has tricks of his own and switches Rachel for her older sister Leah. Jacob works another seven years to take Rachel as his second wife, but still feels that Laban owes him. He works out a skimming scheme, taking the best and strongest breeding lambs and goats from Laban’s herds and keeping them for himself. He amasses herds of hundreds by this petty theft. When Laban wises up, Jacob, Rachel and Leah pack up their herds, children, servants and household goods and take off. Oh yeah, and Rachel also steals Laban’s household gods, which sends Laban in hot pursuit. After much argument and many threats, Laban and Jacob work out a deal–you go your way, and I’ll go mine. They literally drew together a pillar of stones like a line in the sand and said, you stay on your side and I’ll stay on mine, and nobody gets hurt.

So with Laban’s line behind him, Jacob and his family are making their way back toward the land of his childhood, the inheritance he stole all those years ago, when they discover that Esau lies directly in their path. The same Esau who threatened to kill Jacob if ever they met again. And he was coming at them with 400 men.

This is where we find Jacob–on the run from Laban, headed off by Esau, in the middle beside the Jabbok River.

A Ford at the Jabbok River

The Jabbok is not a mighty, rushing river at this point–it’s little more than a stream, really–but it sits inside a deep and jagged ravine, with steep edges leading to high peaks on either side. Jacob sits at the bottom of this deep, rocky pit, with Esau on one side and Laban on the other, and nowhere to go. He sends his family across the ford of the river, and sits utterly alone on the other side as the night falls, awaiting his demise. He is empty of tricks, without his entourage, stripped of his wealth, status and power, frightened and desolate.

Our situation in the church is not so different than Jacob’s at the Jabbok. We mainline Protestants have also lost our entourage—presidents and politicians from among our ranks who took our counsel; mainstream media who showed respect, even deference and understanding of our faith; blue laws that kept stores closed and restricted baseball games to Saturdays; wealth and power and status. We have run out of tricks for church growth initiatives, miracle youth groups and successful Sunday School programs. Sometimes, it seems like we are simply awaiting our demise.

And yet, according to God’s promise we are waiting for new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells.

Here’s the key: the God of Jacob and our God, that God of the new heavens and the new earth, the God of Jesus Christ does not simply arise out of the Jabbok River to save Jacob, any more than the Great Pumpkin arises from the pumpkin patch bestowing presents.

God shows up to fight.

Gustave Dore

There at the banks of the Jabbok, a man who Jacob seems instinctively to know is God shows up and they begin to wrestle. All through the night, back and forth, rolling in the dirt and mud at the side of the river, grunting and squirming and pinning and grabbing, God and Jacob, the Bible tells us, wrestle, and one does not prevail over the other.

See, when we’re sitting at the Jabbok, without our tricks, without our entourage, enemies on either side, God doesn’t show up to save us or to vindicate us—God shows up to wrestle us, to challenge our strength, and to change our very name.

This, of course, is not what we want. We would much prefer the God who rescues us to go out ahead of us and fix the things that are broken. We would much prefer the God who vindicates us to go and deal righteously with our enemies. Why can’t God just rise up from the pumpkin patch and give us presents? The God who wrestles us deals with us—taking us firmly by the shoulders, holding on tight and refusing to let go.

Mel Perkarsky

When God has got a hold of you, you’re in for some transformation, and that’s hard work. Wrestling is exhausting, sometimes even agonizing. All we really want is our nice herds and families and children and servants and wealth back. We just want to do our jobs, go to church, be nice, sincere people and get a good night’s sleep. But there is no sleeping at the Jabbok. God has come to us in this time and place in Christian history to wrestle us into a new way of being. We wrangle over theology and politics and resolutions. We debate how to worship and pray and talk about God. We reinvent children’s programs and youth ministries. We struggle over mission projects and giving, and reach out in service to a world of endless brokenness and need.

Ruth Beloe

So when all this wrestling leaves us feeling like we are being mauled or attacked or beaten, we must always remember who our wrestling partner is. We are not wrestling not some demon, some danger or distress or horrific creature of the night. We are wrestling with God Almighty. We may be far away from our entourage, but as long as we are wrestling, we are in constant and compassionate contact with God Almighty. We are locked in God’s embrace, so close we can feel one another’s breathing, and smell each other’s sweat and hear one another’s heartbeat and feel the heat from each other’s bodies. This wrestling is a time of utmost holiness and intimacy with God, where we, like Jacob, might claim to see God face to face.

Jacoib Epstein

When the wrestling gets us down, we must remember who we are wrestling with, but we must also remember what we are wrestling for. We are wrestling for a blessing. God wants more from us, because God wants more for us—more than the tired old scraps from Laban’s table, more than the life of trickery, more than being Esau’s nemesis. More than a has-been, wannabe, used-to-be church. God promised to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob a land and a future, many generations of descendants who come to love God and become a blessing to all nations. That promise is ours as well, as Jacob’s children. God also promises us a future—new generations who will continue to serve and love God, to be a blessing to all the nations of the world. That is the blessing we are wrestling for, and we must not give up or let go until we receive it.

Rembrandt

When the dawn comes that morning at the Jabbok, and the wrestling match between God and Jacob is over, nothing about Jacob’s situation has changed. Laban is still seething behind him, Esau is still hunting him down with 400 men. He is still without his entourage. If anything, Jacob has only been weakened—exhausted and wounded from his night of wrestling. Likewise, our circumstances are not going to change—the world will not return to bygone days, blue laws or baby boom churches. But like Jacob, if we hold on until dawn, we will have been changed so that we are ready to meet that world, and we will have received the blessing of God’s promise for the future.

Shraga Weil

Like Jacob, we will have a new name. Jacob’s new name was Israel, “one who strives with God.” What will our new name be? What new name will carry us as leaders of the church into the future? Will God call us out to be explorers and entrepreneur? Inventors? Pioneers? Reformers? Artists? Guides? Whatever new name God blesses us with, that name will reveal our true identity as those who have wrestled with God and received a blessing.

The change will not be easy, and we will not emerge unscathed. Jacob acquired a permanent limp from his night at the Jabbok, the result of a hip knocked out of joint. I suspect we will have some parts of ourselves and our churches permanently knocked out of joint as well, and we will come out with a limp. Our entourage will not be coming with us. Like Jacob, our strength and ego and power and charming good looks will not be the first thing people notice about us. Instead they will notice our brokenness—our limp. But maybe, just maybe, that limp makes us approachable again—to the mass of humanity who does not feel strong and powerful and charming and good-looking, perhaps a limping and vulnerable, but open-hearted and humble church will be just what they need to find God again. We will have received a body shaped by God, even if God has to pummel it into submission to get it there.

Karen Novak

I imagine Jacob the next morning, as the sun dawns behind him, walking up the hill from the Jabbok, boldly ready to meet Esau, looking like Rocky Balboa at the end of the prize fight. Swollen cheekbones, split lip, blackened eye, yet triumphant. Limping, but confident, strong and proud. Through the bruises, his eyes are smiling and his mouth is wide in a grin. On his lips, a single word: Hallelujah!

According to God’s promise we are wrestling for new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells.

As we embark upon this Annual Meeting, I remind you that we are at the Jabbok. Let us wrestle on—not with each other, but with the God of the new heavens and the new earth, who would give to us a new name and a blessing for the future. Refuse to sit and await our demise. God is here with us, holding us tight to wrestle us into new being. Let us keep up the struggle and listen for the blessing—so that the only sincere word that we can utter is, hallelujah! Amen.


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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