Surpassing all understanding

adam-melancon.jpg

In September 2001, I was serving in a pastorate in Abbeville, Louisiana. Shortly after the 11th, the mayor gathered all of the religious leaders together in the town square to pray about our situation. I’m inclined to believe that this was an egregious trampling on our separation of church and state, but I would have been foolish to fight it. I gathered. Even in the heat of the afternoon.

All of the religious leaders were men, except for me. And I seemed to punctuate the fact that I was a woman, because I was carrying my daughter. There were about three Baptist, five Charismatics, three Roman Catholics, one Methodist, one Episcopalian, and me.

One guy had the nerve to get up and pray for forgiveness for our country. He had been taking preaching lessons from Jerry Falwell, and for him, it was obvious that the reason there was a terrorist attack was because of women in authority positions. And if that wasn’t enough, he specified: “even in our churches.”

I slouched in my chair a bit.

One after one, the preachers got up, with their hair slicked back, evoking dramatic prayers, calling on God for help, and strength, and forgiveness.

I was praying that the service would end soon.

And then the Episcopalian priest got up. He was in his fifties, and in that crowd, his lack of hair was a noticeable. He had a tiny congregation that kept going because of their loving and beautiful ministry to divorced Catholics. He shook a bit with his prayerbook, he got up close to the microphone, and he read a Psalm. He read a Psalm, in a quiet voice and I hung on every single word, as if it was life itself.

The tension and fear that had been balled up in my stomach left. Of course, I was still annoyed with that sexist guy, but even my anger had dissipated. There was some sort of peace that overcame me. And over the course of that year, I began to read those Psalms over and over again. Psalms like this one:

“You who live in the shelter of the Most High,
who abide in the shadow of the Almighty,
will say to God, ‘My refuge and my fortress;
my God in whom I trust.’
For God will deliver you from the snare of the fowler
and from the deadly pestilence;
God will cover you with God’s pinions,
And under God’s wings, you will find refuge.”

Somehow, sitting there in my fear, anger, and helplessness, I sensed God enfolding me under those wings, shading me. I felt peace, even as I longed for it.

But why? Why did my fear soothe? I didn’t sense that we were out of physical danger. And contrary to the Psalmist, I knew that my belief in God could not save me or my family from dying in a terrorist attack. I am fully aware that good people of faith died on 9/11. But, nonetheless, there was peace.

Some would say that it was just an emotion, just a feeling that overcame me. Some would say that in my weakness and frailty, in the midst of our patriarchal society, I needed a father figure whom I could rely upon at that moment, and so I conjured one up in my mind. And I was suddenly hiding under the wing of the cosmic granddaddy of them all: the God of Abraham and Sarah. And that’s what gave me comfort.

Maybe they are right. I would never downplay the place of imagination or emotion in these situations. We know that a little bit of creativity, hatred, and anger can cause a world of destruction. So, if an individual’s imagination conjures up a thousand years of belief and prayers and tradition, and that in turn causes peace, well that’s no small matter to brush aside.

But we also know that peace is something that runs deeply. It moves us from emotion and stirs us into action. It can cause us to seek justice and mercy, and emboldens us to do amazing things.

So let us rest, enfolded under the wing of God, and in that sheltered place, let us long for peace.

photo’s of a church in the square in Abbeville, by Adam Melancon

Peacemakers in Action

charlesfred.jpg

Last Sunday, David Little spoke to the students about his book, Peacemakers in Action. He compiled this book about people of faith who work everyday for peace.

In his presentation, David began with the words of Jesus, and then reminded us of the violent death that ended Jesus’ life. He lifted up Martin Luther King, Jr. and Gandhi and evoked the truth, over and over again, that peacemaking has to be wedded with seeking justice, and so it can be extremely dangerous.

King often preached about having the “strength to love.” He said that it was easy to resort to violence as a response to violence, but it took a very strong person to respond in love.

Looking back on last Sunday, and then seeing the events unfold this week, it was if David stood, forewarning us of the dark clouds that would come.

Many organizers of the protests were Buddhist monks. They’re described as young students, in the midst of their religious training in the monasteries. They have been spurred by their deep religious convictions to seek peace, justice, and to make change in the world.

They are like us.

Although they were certainly braver than I could be. The government didn’t seem to respond to their initial protests. Then, in the dark of the night, they raided the monasteries. About 150 of these young, religious men–the leaders–were rounded up and taken into custody for their demonstrations. It’s happened before in Burma’s history. The monks knew what the repercussions would be. They were acting as incredibly brave peacemakers.

I wish there was something that we could do. Some way to let them know that they are not alone in those cells. Some light that I could lend in their valley of death. Some way that I could communicate how many of us are thinking about them. Something….

In this important hour, may we keep watching and waiting. And may we pray for peace.

photo’s by CharlesFred

This one goes out to Pop

hugh-ennis.jpg

At my husband’s church in D.C., they had a former, beloved pastor. Instead of calling him “Reverend” or even “Pastor,” the congregation, to this very day, calls him “Pop.” While Pop was shepherding the church, he mentored another young man, who would go on to be a prominent church leader. Pop’s legacy in the church is so strong that it’s almost like his hallowed presence still haunts the walls, giving out wisdom and support when it’s needed.

Even though Pop’s dead now, his son is in his seventies, and attends the church. Brian and Nelson, Pop’s son, regularly hang out in the church kitchen together, gossiping, baking bread, and cracking jokes.

Recently, Nelson told the story of his father’s pastorate at the neighborhood church. When Pop began his work there, the church membership was 117 and when it hit 105, he decided that he was no longer effective. He decided that he needed to retire.

“I wish he could have known it was a national trend,” Nelson lamented.

It’s been two years that I’ve been hearing about the venerable Pop. Even as a pastor’s wife, who can’t attend my husband’s church more than a couple times a year, his image looms large in my mind. But this story, it hit me, in the gut.

Because, well, we don’t know it. Church leaders never know it’s a national trend. Or, we do, but we’re sure we’re going to beat the odds. If we grow in spite of the national trends, we’re a success. And, if we don’t, we’ve failed. We’re not effective.

Here’s a man that everyone’s still talking about thirty years after he retired. Here’s a man who’s quoted every week among the church membership. Here’s a man who encouraged the congregation to bring the best of their religious traditions together, in order to make up the neighborhood church. And yet, he thought was a failure, because he lost a few members.

I can relate. I know people write a great deal about how success doesn’t hinge on the numbers. It’s true. Absolutely. I’ve been an anonymous worshiper before. Even after giving hours of time, years of perfect attendance, and ten percent of my salary, I left a megachurch, without one single person noticing. I’m pretty sure that upon exiting, if a bus ran over me in the parking lot, they would have simply stepped over my dead carcass, on the way out of their metal warehouse sanctuary.

I’m a firm believer in bigger is not better.

But, as a pastor of churches under 250, I know that the numbers really do count, because those numbers are people. And there’s just something deep inside of a good pastor, that makes her want to leave the ninety-nine, wander into the dark and dangerous forest, looking for the one that wandered away. There’s a drive within us that wants that person back, and it just doesn’t matter what the national trends might be.

And so, this morning, I mourn for Pop. I hope he knows now, somehow, how important his work was. And I grieve for all the pastors who have that heavy, heart-wrenching burden of loving their flock.

photo’s by Hugh Ennis

How about a sticky bridge?

char_lie.jpg

The great thing about being on a church staff with someone, especially someone you get along with, is that you can talk about stuff. At Western, “stuff” is on the front burner almost all the time.

John Wimberly, the HOS (stands for official designation: Head of Staff. But Wimberly actually prefers the title my 6-year-old gave him: Poobah. C has a knack for nicknames. My husband, B, is Tater. And, I’m Bunny. If you know us, you know just how hilarious these names are…) Okay. Wait. Where was I? Oh yeah, on the front burner.

What’s cooking on there right now is inclusion and exclusion. But hold up. Before you surf away because you’re just so weary of hearing these words, this post isn’t going to have anything to do with the letters l, g, b, or t. Or even q.

For the HOS, it has to do with his interfaith marriage. His wife’s Jewish. And so he’s been teaching classes at Western and the synagogue on the joys and challenges that arise from the cultural and religious differences.

Sometimes couples compromise (have you heard this one? “My wife was Episcopalian, I was a Baptist, so we figured that Presbyterian was a good compromise.” I’m pretty sure you could put a variety of denominations into those slots…). Often that works, but then there are times, particularly with interfaith relationships, when it doesn’t. People have to give up way too much in the exchange.

I’m referring to a profound struggle: Communities of faith believe in things. The sentence is redundant, I know. Perhaps I’m expounding on the obvious, but in our churches, even in progressive churches, we believe in things, even as we’re called to spread the good news. And that leaves people out.

Robert Putnam writes about bridging social capital (inclusive) and bonding social capital (exclusive). Bridging social capital provides weak ties, while bonding social capital provides strong ties.

I’m inclined to think that “exclusive” is bad. I automatically imagine a Country Club: white, upper-class, elite, exclusive.

But could there be a place for bonding social capital? After all, it creates strong community. At Western, we think of ourselves as an inclusive church, because we’re intergenerational, multicultural, and affirming of LGBT persons (oops! It slipped). We believe that doubt is an important component of faith. But we take particular pride when a Republican joins the church, because it’s such a rare event. In that sense, that makes us pretty bonded. And dare I say it? Exclusive.

So, what’s a community of faith to do? We have the strong desire to spread the good news, to be bridges. Yet, the bonding’s important too. As people of God, that’s what builds strong communities, gives us purpose, and strengthens our identity.

I guess we just need to figure out what’s most important. We can identify the bonding quality of our faith communities. We can hinge our work and mission on what God has called us to do and to be. For Western, it’s clearly social justice outreach. For other churches, it will be something else.

And then, with the bond of God’s call in place, we can build as many bridges as we possibly can.

photo’s by char_lie

Who’s your mama?

aia-guyrwood.jpg

About a year ago, I began having a dream. I was caring for someone else’s child. I was giving the baby the attention that he needed, changing his diapers, holding him on my hip. But I didn’t have any particular affection for the baby. The infant was clearly not mine.

I woke up, knowing exactly what the dream was about: Campus Ministry.

It’s taken me a while to get a solid CM program off the ground. I was filling some big shoes. Imagine this. The first week on the job, the Head of Staff says to me, “L (my predecessor, who’s now pursuing an acting career) would pack the church sanctuary every year with a production of ‘The Vagina Monologues.’ You need to come up with something like that.”

And I stammered in reply, “Well…um…o-kaaay….”

We all come into this job with different gifts, and mine is definitely not directing major theatrical productions. And even if it was, who could think of something better than Eve Ensler? That’s gold. L had the whole congregation using the V-word in the sanctuary and everything.

I love these students. They were showing up for worship. We were getting together a lot for lunch, for study groups. They joined the church choir, helped with Sunday school, and went on the picnic. But there wasn’t much substantive for them. The students weren’t forming any community, they didn’t know each other well. And I kept worrying that the congregation was using them as fillers, when the church needed warm bodies to show up for something, or extra volunteers, they would turn to me and say, “Carol, why don’t you get some of the students to come to this?”

“Well…um…okay….”

In other words, we kept trying to paint the students into the larger church picture, but we weren’t giving them their own necessary space on the canvas. And each time we would plan something, our fear of failure loomed large. We didn’t want to make the investment into something really good that would work, because we were so afraid that it wouldn’t work. Do you know that vicious cycle?

Well, we were peddling on that cycle, hard and fast. Until last night. With a bit of healthy struggle, the CM committee decided to spend some big bucks on a program that lasts for six weeks. We front-loaded the calendar, so that the major events take place well before finals. And there’s been an extraordinary amount of work that the young adults have been doing in the church to prepare.

Ten minutes before five, I had that excruciating feeling, like a girl at her sweet-sixteen party, who’s afraid that no one’s going to show. But on top of the normal fear of rejection, I also had the double-whammy panic that I had just spent a lot of good, hard-earned, donated cash on an event that no one was going to be at.

But they came. We didn’t pack the house, but we had more people than we did last week. We played dodge ball in the church courtyard. I’m lucky enough to be friends with John Austin and Erin Echo, who sang. They were amazing. Our guest, David Little, from Harvard Divinity spoke about his new books. He was incredibly interesting and inspiring.

And I’m feeling like this baby’s ours.

photo’s by AIA…Rwood

Hard to nail down

aviandai.jpg

What makes a spiritual experience spiritual? I mean, besides of course–the connection to God. How does it happen?

We’re in worship, someone stands up during the prayers of the people. With a trembling voice, he thanks the congregation for all their support during his surgery, and there it is. The air is thick with God. We look around the sanctuary, and half the people are crying. What makes it a spiritual experience?

I go on a walk, three times a week. And then one day I see a bird, who’s on the ground. I inch next the bird and she doesn’t move. I’m so close that I almost touch her. I can see her feathers shaking and pain in her eyes. Then suddenly, I’m feeling for the frail bird, and she’s pulled something out of me. I’m connecting with some sort of grief that had been tightly, firmly packed away. And I get a fuller sense that I’m a part of the Ground of all Being, along with this tiny creature.

And when we’re at the bedside of someone who’s dying, and we read Psalm 23 and Romans 8. Have you been there? All of a sudden, that weird fear that’s been lurking about in the room all day leaves, the tension among the relatives dissippates, and the room fills with the waters of abundant life.

And what about the joy? What about that incredible love that gushes all over when you hold your baby for the first time? When you look at the paper-thin fingernails and feel that warm skin.

What makes those experiences spiritual?

Could it be the sense that we’re part of something larger than ourselves? Is it that something in our belly reaches out in the time when we need it the most? Is it the emotions that overtake us? Is it that our haunting insecurities are finally being matched with a divine acceptance? Is it simply the firm knowledge of loving and being loved?

What is it?