Church

Communion

In three years at my current congregation I have led seven Confirmation retreats, all to the same camp in Western Michigan. We sleep in the same cabins, meet in the same room, and eat in the same cafeteria. And the same mealtime seating arrangement always prevails: the boys sit at these tables, and the girls sit at these tables.

But on Saturday evening this past weekend I emerged from the buffet line to find that the 15 students on this Confirmation retreat had, without asking any of the adults, pushed two tables together to form one long dining table, and they were squeezed around it shoulder-to-shoulder .

Sometimes communion happens.

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Church

From Faith Statement To Faith Narrative

The 2018/2019 school year is the tenth time I have led a Confirmation class from start to finish. It is also the tenth different version of Confirmation I have led; I change something about it every year, because I’m always dissatisfied with something about it.

This year I wrote a new curriculum–based on the Apostle’s Creed–and I redesigned the “faith statement” assignment at the end. This weekend our students will work with a new assignment instead of the old one on their spring retreat, because at the planning session for that retreat the leadership team gave me very helpful feedback: the old one was abstract and complicated. I agreed.

So the new one is not a statement of faith but a narrative. You can view it here. Here is the heart of the instructions:


Now, as the year comes to an end, we ask you to share what this process has meant for you. Your Confirmation Faith Narrative will be shared with Pastor Rocky, the Confirmation Circle Leaders, and the Session of Fourth Church (the elected group of Elders who are responsible for receiving people into Active Membership). The prompts below are offered as a guide. They suggest that you structure your narrative in three sections–the past, the present, and the futureā€”so that what you write will be less of a statement about what you believe and more a story of your life in faith. You are not expected to answer every prompt; they are there to guide your story.

I enjoyed redesigning this.

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Church

Opening Day

Today is opening day of the baseball season, and stadiums will be packed with cold but jubilant fans. The outcome of the game won’t really matter, not in the context of the whole season. Teams will win on opening day but finish last at the end of the season. Teams will lose on opening day, but . . . you get the idea.

Opening days are symbolic and celebratory, and that matters. But as we get older the celebration gets muted by responsibility. The kids need picked up from school the same time as first pitch; you need to visit someone special in the hospital but you listen to the broadcast in the car; you have to work. The space your life used to hold for exulting over your team on opening day has been taken by other, more meaningful, things.

Awareness dims the opening day mood, too. For football fans it’s awareness about the problematic racial dynamics between its owners and fans and players, vivified by very real concerns over what playing the game is doing to the players. Baseball doesn’t have such an acute reality check for fans, but one has been gestating the past couple of off seasons about the underlying economic model of the game as players and owners approach another collective bargaining deadline. Plus, it’s hard to stay emotionally invested, as a grown up, in an enterprise that pays its most elite players hundreds of millions of dollars.

I will be watching opening day in bits and pieces, where my schedule (and the weather) allows. All things considered, it still means something.

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Church

Parenting Tecnique

I have to keep reminding myself that parenting is not a test of technique. Children are human beings with wills and agency, not instruments to be manipulated to produce desired outputs if only their parents know the right inputs.

Technical advice to parents of infants, toddlers, tweens, and teens creates the impression that there is a right way to get them to sleep, to control tantrums, to coerce them into liking broccoli, to help them master homework, to manage their relationship with a phone, to coach them in sports, to get them into their dream college. There is a corollary impression too. If they don’t sleep well, eat broccoli, or excel at sports; if they can’t control their use of Instagram; if they get wait-listed–then you did something wrong.

So much is out of parents’ control. It’s what makes parenting perhaps the most interesting, fulfilling, and devastating of all human experiences.

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Church

Splatter

I stand holding a chalice half full of juice and utter, “The cup of salvation” over and over to worshipers coming forward for the sacrament, who lift a square of white bread from a basket held by the server to my left and then dip that bread into my chalice. It’s like nothing else. It’s actually kind of messy, because, from cup to mouth, the bread leaks juice onto the floor. By the time the server and I are offering the elements to one another a fractal splatter pattern is splayed on the stone tiles.

Yesterday the splatter hit my wrist. The worshiper responsible for it was aghast and breathed a hushed and wide-eyed, “I’m sorry” with her hand half covering her mouth. Nothing to apologize for. I liked seeing the purple splotch there on my arm, the way it changed shape as gravity pulled the edges of it downward to run over those two little veins.

The cup of salvation.


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Church

Blown Cover

I heard her shout at the pedestrian in front of me, but I couldn’t make out what she’d said. We were separated by about 20 yards and she was walking my direction. I had time before our paths crossed to perform a quick visual assessment and prepare myself for my own interaction. Her appearance and behavior were not inconsistent with what I see near this train station every day.

As we neared one another on the sidewalk I smiled, as I do, and said hello. She shushed me loudly and yelled, “I’m the police! I’m undercover!”

Life in this city holds wonders and heartaches in the same bodies.

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Church

Community Is Not Enough

Many of the conversations among church folk about what we should be and do employ the word “community.” Yet I have been surprised to note in some recent studies that several published and studied frameworks for “healthy” or “vibrant” or “growing” churches don’t mention “community” at all.

One lists “holistic small groups” and “loving relationships.” Another talks about “caring relationships,” while still a third goes only so far as “radical hospitality.” None of them say “community.”

Community cannot be an end in itself for the church. I’ve felt that from even before I went to seminary, but I always expressed it in terms of distinctiveness, like, “People can find community anywhere. The community of church should be distinct, special.” I’m no longer so sure about the ready availability of community, because it seems more and more true that churches are in fact one of the few remaining cultural spaces where the sense of personal belonging outside of one’s family can still be experienced. We are an isolated people.

But I’ve come to believe that community cannot be an end in itself for the church for another reason, and that is that, by itself, community can be dangerous.

We are experiencing a crippling and frightening level of political polarization in the United States in 2019, but don’t both sides of that divide enjoy community with their like-minded peers? Don’t bullies move in tight communities? Aren’t cultures that wink at–or even encourage–abuse enabled by the community enjoyed by those in power? One of the most terrifying elements of the white nationalist violence we have witnessed of late is the thriving (and mostly online) community enjoyed by its practitioners.

For the church, community cannot be its own end. Here we need adjectives, words imaginative and practical like “truthful,” and not mushy and vague like “authentic.” Inclusive, yes, but also serving and compassionate and maybe even delightful.

The adjective doesn’t conjure the thing it’s describing, of course, but it gives us the marker we’re all moving toward and it guides us in our worship, our formation, our evangelism, and our decision making.

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Benediction

The introductory chords of the closing hymn had just begun when he appeared in my vision, a man striding intently down the center aisle of the sanctuary toward the chancel and the communion table–toward me and my colleague. It’s not an uncommon occurrence, actually. I can’t count the times a person has taken this route from the sanctuary entrance to the Fellowship Hall, where the coffee and cookies are, during a worship service.

But this gentleman did not turn left toward cookies and coffee. Instead, he reached the table, planted his feet, extended both his arms straight out to their sides in a cruciform pattern and bowed his head. Neither my colleague or I moved. We didn’t look at each other. We watched him. After a moment he looked up at her and then me and declared with utter conviction and strong diction, “I’m going to be okay.” He then turned around and began running back down the center aisle, breaking into a sprint and then slamming through the rear doors and out onto the sidewalk.

Unfazed, the congregation stood and sang the hymn.

We’re going to be okay.

Go in peace.

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Church

What Are They Here For?

The band were great but they hardly talked at all. One hit after another, they set ’em up and knocked ’em down. It was a nonstop rock show.

The previous concert was different. The performer at that one talked almost as much as he sang. He had a story for every song. It was one part live music and one part confessional, full of intimate oversharing.

Do people come to see you do what you do? Or do they come to see you? Do they want to hear you play your hits or tell your story?

You best be clear about that.

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