Hand-me-down Church

This year, the hand-me-downs are downright thought-provoking.

Last fall they made me sentimental, because it was the first time my younger daughter fit into clothes that used to be her older sister’s, whom we adopted as a (tall) 2-year-old. Now as our pre-schooler tries on warm weather clothes from her older sister, it’s not just about misty-eyed remembrances for me. I’ve been “bridging” (read: filling in during a holding pattern) for a congregation that is awaiting a pastor re-developer. They are at that point in decline. The “hand-me-down” church they wished to pass on to the next generation does not fit, and in fact, even their direct descendents refuse to show up in it except for funerals.

Some of my daughter’s hand-me-downs have stains that have only come to light after years of being packed in boxes in the basement. Did I notice them when I first packed the clothes away? I can’t recall. Or maybe some of them, (like I learned baby spit-up stains can do) show up yellow after awhile of being out of laundry circulation, since they haven’t been in use for awhile. Church wounds can be like that too. Maybe we had no idea someone was still clinging onto something alienating a pastor or church member said to them years ago, but if it has been packed away and never dealt with, the stain may actually have taken hold deeper than it looked originally. And that’s why they are not here, but we will never know.

Also, my two daughters have bodies of different proportions and personalities. Our eldest grows out of the length of clothes long before anything becomes tight around the waist. For our youngest this is not the trajectory. Also, our first rarely has opinions about what she wants to wear or not, but our second throws over items if she struggles the slightest bit the first time she tries it on, or decides a half hour later it is intolerable and WILL NEVER BE WORN AGAIN. So I am glad they were hand-me-downs anyway. The same clothes look differently on them, or may be judged as “not right” for various and sundry reasons. Showing up for church dressed comfortably for yourself, with children behaving how they naturally behave, could lead to stares. Going to church to simply listen, when younger generations are accustomed to the pace and participation of social media, may seem to some like a waste of an hour or a silencing of their voices. They may not have a ready opinion until they try it on, but then feel like it just doesn’t fit them.

Most of our hand-me-downs are not precious. If they were mine as a child, saved by my mother, I don’t give them away. But the vast majority could be interchangeable with other clothing that fits within my parameters, whether it shows up in photos of my older daughter at this age or not. That’s the least sentimental way I feel about buildings or congregations with a long history. If there are congregations in a few mile radius or even closer to your home than this one, I acknowledge they are not the church of your long-standing memories, but they could become the congregation of your new ones. Memories are not a reason to keep setting out clothes no one will wear.

In a way, I am very much pro-hand-me-downs. It means less shopping (which I loathe) and less expense. It seems like good use of our resources, and the world’s resources, to reuse instead of buying new. But I don’t know that I feel the same about congregations. There may still be enough money and a building – resources that should indeed be used for good – but are the established culture, the tight-knit group that perceives belonging, and the history of that congregation ever going to fit a new generation? Is there a point of decline past which it is better to put the hand-me-downs out with the recycling instead of putting them on another child? I do that with clothes when I am too embarrassed to pass them on in the state they are in, to our friend’s daughter one year younger than my youngest. How do we determine that point for a congregation?

Someone unlike us, to guide us

Pick the one of those things that makes you most uncomfortable, then let’s find someone who meets the description to talk about the Bible with!

I’ve been pondering all week some questions from our forum on “Millennials in the Church or Not” last Sunday. One of you asked, “How are they going to receive the sacraments if they aren’t in church?” and another, “How do they expect to grow in faith if they don’t go to Bible Study or hear sermons?” This is where it happens for you, and has always happened for you. Yet not for everyone. Thanks to the Holy Spirit, for this reading from Acts today.

Philip got the message to go to a wilderness road, and in that empty, abandoned setting, to approach the other lone soul, a eunuch from Ethiopia.

“Do you understand what you are reading?” Philip asks him.

“How can I, unless someone guides me?” And he invited Philip to get in and sit beside him.

We could make the case here, if we wanted, that people have to go to church to hear a preacher who has been to seminary, or to be surrounded by people with “mature” faith. How will we understand unless someone guides us? But, ummm… Philip hadn’t been to seminary, nor had he believed in or been proclaiming the resurrection of Jesus for very long. Yet, when asked what he thought the Scripture meant, he was willing to try. After all, Scripture is best understood in community. I’d go so far as to say that the Word of God comes alive, breathes in the space between us, when we wonder about it together. And that can be done in the most predictable of places, or where some of us would find the least likely places.

Notice what doesn’t happen, what isn’t recorded in this story. There’s no explicit answer to the theological question asked by the eunuch. Perhaps the author of Acts knew how we tend to mine the Scriptures for answers. It was a pretty clear question: Is the prophet talking about himself, or someone else? Philip could have answered with one word. Instead Philip starts with the verse the man is stuck on, then goes on to share the good new of Jesus as he understood it. As they were going along the road, they came to some water; and the eunuch said, “Look, here is water! What is to prevent me from being baptized?” So they did. Engagement with the Scripture, and a baptism, in the middle of nowhere.

There is permission here, to loosen up on our definitions of what it means to “do church.” Perhaps even to get back to the roots of Christianity, before the Church. If this makes you uncomfortable, you are in good company. Did anybody notice that verse 37 is missing? Somebody added into later manuscripts, “Then Philip said, ‘If you believe with all your heart, you may.’ And he answered and said, ‘I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God.’” That’s not originally part of the story. It goes straight from “What prevents me from being baptized?” to “so they did.” But somebody – I’m guessing after the Church was solidifying into more of an institution – thought “No, no, no, there has to be a requirement, a confession of faith, a commitment, for an adult to get baptized. That’s what we teach. I’m sure this should be in there.” So it was added. It doesn’t appear in the version we generally rely on here because it is not in the original Greek manuscripts, which the NRSV is translated from. It’s in the Latin ones, which are not original. But truly, they were doing church right out there on the wilderness road. Not like in here. But church nonetheless.

Besides permission to make our definitions of being faithful more flexible, there’s a promise in this story: You will be changed, by listening to God’s call to come up alongside people and being willing to wrestle with the meaning of God’s words and actions with them. In the case of the Ethiopian eunuch, the person himself, his existence, proclaims a new dimension to the Gospel we probably wouldn’t get in church. Philip didn’t sidle up to a nondescript person just like himself. If we can speak in generalities, in Israel this person was (1) a foreigner, (2) a sexual minority, and (3) quite literally the servant of a foreign power. Pick the one of those things that makes you most uncomfortable, then let’s find someone who meets the description to talk about the Bible with! I believe we would hear some new and different interpretations. That encounter would not just “change” them, bring them to faith, or whatever we think we’re doing. But it would change you and me, certainly.

Hearing the Word and receiving the Sacraments in a homogenous community be very insulating. We only see or hear from people who resemble ourselves, so we can only conceive of the Church being like how we do it. The Gospel becomes not really a radical encounter with God’s boundless mercy, but a standard of behaviors that uphold traditions. But here’s the good news of Jesus Christ: God lives out in the world, certainly as much as in here, which makes walking alongside or talking to people who have no reason to come in here, actually doing church, being faithful. Scripture is best read and interpreted in community, with others to guide us, but that does not mean we have to all gather round and listen to the expert in the pulpit. We need to listen to each other. And sometimes the interpretation we need, to really grasp what God is up to amongst us, is the presence of the person who makes us most uncomfortable: an Ethiopian eunuch. How shall we understand without someone unlike us, to guide us? Thankfully, God provides.

Setting the Agenda for Faith Therapy

Churches won’t provide the therapy necessary for children of God to pursue healthy, healing relationships with God the Parent – unless we are ready to engage in confession ourselves.

Parents have a great power: setting the agenda for their children’s future therapy. This may include, but is of course not limited to:

  • What they did that hurt
  • What they didn’t do, but we needed them to do
  • What we still do because of what they did or didn’t do
  • They didn’t understand my generation/situation
  • Or did they understand but didn’t care or were powerless to affect the change I needed?

No surprise here, that these are some of the same questions we ask about God, whom we (with Jesus) think of as our Heavenly Parent. What if church is not a habit, or place we go because “that’s how we were raised,” but we are actually there for group therapy, of sorts? We can sort through together our perceptions of what our Parent has done/not done and how that affects us. Our lead therapist can call us out when we are being obtuse, and redirect in healthy directions. We might help each other realize that deeply complicated relationship is affected by many layers of interpretation (ours and others’) about perceived supportive or toxic divine parenting. We can grieve together what we don’t understand, or bewail that the precedent or guidance we have from Our Parent seems not to address the nuances of our generation. We may even delve into difficult theological questions such as: Is Our Divine Parent all-loving or all-powerful?

Even those raised in healthy, well-adjusted households need the ability to reflect on: What of who I am and how I act comes from my family of origin? How can I choose to keep or leave elements behind? So it needs to be said: There’s no shame in going to therapy, or in this case, church.

Some of what we need to talk out might be the damaging interpretations of churches or individual Christians in our past.
Your Divine Parent is angry angry angry!
You better not risk the wrath of your Parent!
God hates this, that, and the other. (But what if one of those categories describes me, yet I cannot be someone else?)

Churches could recognize part of our calling as helping those whose relationships with their Divine Parent or brother Jesus have been damaged by previous churches, bad theology in the media, the culture or from Great-Aunt Gertrude at a time of crisis. So we start a “Theology Pub” or coffeehouse, a way to have initial conversations without the atmosphere of that previously threatening situation. We can talk about spiritual damage and how to address it from the pulpit. We must be vehemently public about no tolerance for physical/sexual/emotional abuse associated with the church, but then more subtly, we need to be self-aware about when group faith talk reveals a need for the services of trained therapists for certain individuals.

But here’s the rub, and perhaps the reason we are hesitant to embrace the role of congregations in running group therapy for our relationship with God our Parent. It’s this word I learned in Psych 101: “transference.” For many of use who recognize our relationship with God as that of parent and child, the Church is in the middle of that relationship. To criticize God is to criticize the Church, and vice versa. Who seeks out their own negative feedback? Not us. What do you want to leave behind from that relationship? Ummm… can we even talk about that or will there be a mass exodus from the church? Most of our baggage with God is in fact baggage from “God’s people” acting or speaking while bearing God’s name. Churches won’t provide the therapy necessary for children of God to pursue healthy, healing relationships with God the Parent – unless we are ready to engage in confession ourselves. We must risk self-reflection when it could very well lead to begging for forgiveness. But if we don’t we’ll never get past the baggage in the doorway.

There are alternative therapies, of course, to unpacking our issues with God in a congregation. Asking deep questions with friends can be much more effective than half-listening to a sermon or responding to questions from a hat with near-strangers. Following a blog or twitter feed or reading books by people who have worked through similar issues could be therapeutic. But then we need to get our own thoughts and feelings down on paper or the keypad, and communicating on the internet is far less likely to be therapeutic than talking to someone trustworthy in person. I remember a professor of Bible saying about the different translations/versions: “Well, a Bible you are reading is better than one you’re not reading.” So I say, “faith talk therapy you’re participating in is better than one you’re not.” However we do it, we have to get past secondhand experiences to get to the core issues in our relationship with God our Parent:

  • When do you feel closest to God, and why do you think that is?
  • How open are you to other interpretations of how God acts?
  • For what do you blame God, or yourself in your relationship?
  • What are you going to do about it?

We all want to develop a healthy relationship with our Parent. Faith talk therapy could really help.

The Feast of Saint Krolik

When we met our oldest daughter for the first time, we brought her a small stuffed bunny. We called him Krolik, because that’s the Polish word for rabbit. Adoption from a Hague Convention country such as Poland requires at least 2 visits: the first to meet and agree to adopt the child, the second to stay as a family through the bonding period, court proceedings and visa-approval. So we needed a surrogate for what ended up being 4 months between meeting and starting to love her, and actually being able to lovingly parent our daughter in person forever. We needed a part of ourselves to show her we would come back. Krolik did that for us.

As is my modus operandi I thought the book was the point. The adoption agency had suggested we bring a book to give her as a gift on the first trip, and I had bought one of those Hallmark books where you can record yourself reading the book, so that as she turned the pages she’d hear us. I bought the little bunny as an after-thought because it was sitting next to the “Guess How Much I Love You” book in the display. We don’t know how often our beloved daughter looked at the book we had left with her in that interim period, but when we returned she didn’t seem too interested in it. But the bunny – he was her constant companion.

And Krolik was hilarious! He jumped and flipped and kissed by nuzzling nose-to-nose. He was just the right size for her little hand to grab him by the neck, the perfect companion for exploration. It was understood by all of us that Krolik was an essential player in any action we might take – indoors, outdoors, awake or asleep. But he liked to tease us. Sometimes he’d rocket across the floor of a museum, as if to say, “Can you find the real masterpiece in this picture?” Sometimes we’d rush into a cab, only to look around checking for all the necessities, panic-stricken until we spotted him on the bench we’d been waiting on outside.

We only lost him once, and it wasn’t abroad. It was in the drug store closest to our home. When we arrived home without Krolik, my cheerful, compliant daughter refused to get out of the car. She couldn’t tell me why, but it didn’t take long for me to figure that out. Like the mom in “Knuffle Bunny” my first thought was, “Where’s the bunny?” We rushed back to the drug store and re-traced our steps. The employees had just changed shifts and hadn’t seen us earlier. As we turned to leave, there was Krolik sitting atop the checkout that wasn’t being used – too high for my daughter to have put him there – so somebody must have seen him on the floor, known he was much beloved, and raised him up for those who would surely return for him.

Many adoptive families celebrate a specific “family day” and some even call it “gotcha day.” For us, it was such a gradual process, and meeting our daughter was followed so quickly by leaving her again for months. Plus the court date was in the middle of our second, extended time in-country together, so we decided to observe the first day that we took over from our surrogate parent, Krolik, as our milestone. We call it The Feast of St. Krolik, or Krolik’s Day for short, and we go out for carrot cake.

Months after our first Krolik’s Day (1 year anniversary), when I became visibly pregnant, what we had been telling our daughter about having a baby in our family and becoming a big sister became real in a way that surprised my husband and I. And if we’re honest, also hurt a bit. She tossed Krolik aside – physically out of her bed – for a baby doll. On one level, we understood. She was adjusting and living into her new role as protective older sister. But Krolik wasn’t just a bunny; he had stood in for us. He was the physical personality that had communicated in our absence how much she was loved. And he made every day a rollicking adventure.

When Little Sister was about 9 months old there was a resurgence of favor for Krolik, mostly as a baby-tickler. Now he’s making another comeback, but to be very clear, now like every doll or stuffed animal in this house of two daughters, Krolik is most definitely a “She”. We love her so much and are amazed by her every day. And Krolik too.

It has been an adventure-filled 5 years.

God Is In This Body

God lives here now. In this body, these bodies. God is aching with tired muscles and catching the flu and detecting cancerous cells and over-eating and going senile. God is in danger of being shot. God is denied advancement because the body God lives in has a uterus. God is starving this very body, because a perceived standard of beauty is so distorted it creates eating disorders. God is trapped in detention because the body God inhabits was brought across the border as a child, has no other home to go to, and no path to citizenship in this country.

It is scandalous and offensive to claim that a human body is God’s temple, God’s dwelling place. You bet it is; it is supposed to be. More offensive even than disrupting business in the Temple. The place where God meets us, is here – not in a spiritual sense, but a physical one. When you look into the eyes of Jesus or Isa or Yeshua, you are gazing into a temple in which God dwells.

One professor described Jesus’ actions in the Temple as performance art. It certainly has that effect. Flipping the tables of the money-changers, driving out the animals that were prescribed by God for the celebratory sacrifices in Hebrew Scripture, throwing coins on the ground like they were rocks. It provokes a reaction, maybe even a visceral, physical reaction from everyone who witnesses it.

About 5 years ago, a Cuban artist named Erik Ravelo created a set of photographs to highlight the plight of children, vulnerable in many ways throughout our world. In each one, a man is standing with back to the camera in the shape of a cross, and a child is hung on them, as if Jesus on the cross. A child dressed in Middle Eastern clothing, hung on a soldier refers to the on-going conflict in Syria. A child in school uniform, hanging on a gunman wearing a hoodie. An obese child, hanging on Ronald McDonald. And others. The images provoke an immediate visceral reaction. They’ve stuck with me, obviously for years, haunting other images I see.

The uproar around this series of photographs was really telling, though. People were offended that Mr. Ravelo used the image of the cross. That there were children’s bodies, in some of them, although all were at least partially clothed. The artist had to respond: “I still don’t understand why some people are mad at me, but they’re not mad about those problems. Some people get offended by the photos but not by the problems the photos want to talk about.”

God lives in this? Not in the artist’s depiction, but in the actual horrible desecration of children’s bodies that happens every day in our world? Or women’s bodies? Or elderly bodies? Or brown bodies? It’s offensive. It is heart-breaking.

I used to consider that the overturning of the money-changers’ tables in the Temple – at the beginning of Holy Week in the other 3 Gospels besides John – maybe contributed to the religious authorities feeling murderous enough to have Jesus crucified by the end of the week. But in this version, it seems like making a mess of the Temple was just a way to get people’s attention so they could question his authority and hear something more scandalous in his answer: when he refers to God’s Temple, Jesus is talking about his own body. “Jesus was not just ‘wearing’ a human body like a set of clothes. He was a human body, as inseparable from his body as you are from yours. And God was inseparable from him.”

What if God meets us in our bodies? When the Jews said to him, “What sign can you show us for doing this?” what they were asking is, what authority do you have to do any of this? Christ’s authority is his body. He, like you, is made in the image of God, beloved as he is, so can walk through the world – and even rage through the world – acting with that authority.

Might we develop a different relationship with bodies if we actually trusted that God dwells here – our own bodies and other people’s? We don’t have to love Alzheimers or addiction or our bodies’ genetic predispositions, but as we abide in Christ and he in us, we are now the temples in which God dwells on earth. We can love the temple because God lives in it, in whatever state it is in.

When we exercise, tiny micro-tears occur in our muscles, which the body then repairs and adapts the muscles to better handle that activity. That’s how we develop strength in these bodies, through tears. These temples are in a constant state of flux: being torn down or built up, changing, aging, harassed, healing. And that’s the sign that God dwells here, not perfection.

Now, a warning against bad theology when our bodies are broken: I heard Kate Bowler a church history professor who has stage 4 colon cancer, discussing her book “Everything Happens for a Reason: And Other Lies I’ve Loved” earlier this week. She talked about well-meaning people trying to make the destruction of her body carry some meaning or purpose, perhaps to tame the chaos and make life and God less fearful for themselves. She said in the MPR interview: “I loved my life before. I want it back.” The “after” is not better, more meaningful. But of course you learn things by experiencing how fragile all of us really are.

We learn too, how fragile God has chosen to be, by living in human bodies. Now that’s love.

We don’t want to believe that this is the point – that God lives and acts in frail human bodies. But there it is. Our bodies are so precious to God. It seems like a non-sequitor to most of our faith, like Jesus’ comment to people who are talking about the Temple, only he’s referring to his own body. We try to make our faith about belief or eternal life after death. But really it is about bodies, struggling through this life. Can these dry bones live? Can this brokenness ever hope for something better? Who will put themselves out there to physically block the bullets from my body? What happens to all our bodies matters deeply because God lives here.

Text: John 2:13-22

No Greater Love Than This: Ash Wed in a Congregation Awaiting Re-development

John 15:13 No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.

This congregation is in a very specific moment, for which Valentine’s on Ash Wednesday is the perfect weird combination. In re-development, you are invited to lovingly embrace the death that leads to resurrection. Maybe it will be the death of things “we’ve always done this way” or death of expectations for the staff’s time, or the death of your control over the building or death of an unconscious hope that things will somehow return to when this church was in its “glory days”. Any of these could feel like a loss, and judging by how committed this core group of people are, it could also feel like a death of part of who you are. But it is not defeat; it is love. It is plunging into the waters of baptism in order to be born again, drowning the old self so the new might emerge. By the power of God’s limitless, unconditional love, death is the beginning of resurrection.

Jesus invites us to abide in him as he abides in the Father. How did that go? Well, Jesus submitted himself so thoroughly to the will of the Father – loving us even in our sin– that he died. The Father endured the heartbreak of losing a child, so that we would know definitively: we are all God’s beloved children always and forever.

What does it look like for faithful church members, of a certain demographic, to abide in Christ as he abides in God? Can you live into Christ’s body, emptied of himself for the sake of others’ resurrection? Can you live in God’s heartbreak over God’s only child for the same unconditional love? “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” And it is clear in re-development that we’re not just talking about “friends” as those you are already close to, but those you will choose to love although they have no claim of family loyalty over you. It is always a loss, a sacrifice, to put someone else’s needs first. But for “friends” who are not even related or perhaps similar to you in any way? That requires deeper sacrifice, more akin to death of our will.

I’m not sure any of us can actually muster up that love. Maybe for our children or parents or beloved spouse or dearest friend. But for the “friends” we haven’t met yet? I can’t do it. I don’t want to do it. But Jesus does. God the Father/Creator does. No one has greater love than Jesus has shown, in dying by human hands, ashes to ashes, dust to dust, or God in bringing a child into the world who would do so. Their acts of love, facing death for love of us, expose the complete injustice at the core of our beings. Yet once it is exposed to the light and air, our sin can be cleaned out and begin to heal. It is nearly unfathomable, this love; it is shown by facing death. So if Hope is to attempt this new birth, the resurrection of re-development, you will need to abide completely in Christ. Clothe yourselves in Christ, live “hidden” in him, embody “God with us.” Then you stand a chance, of death revealing the greatest love of all.

 

Both sides of the stole

This stole carries a lot of transitions.

I wore it – white side out – today for Transfiguration. By (Ash) Wednesday I will turn it over for purple, the color of Lent. Today I read the Gospel when Jesus’ robes were turned dazzling white, and God spoke directly to the inner circle of disciples saying, “This is my Son; listen to him!” Then I preached about the shadows in that scene of dazzling light, to a small congregation about to get some very disappointing news: the pastor they were eagerly anticipating is not coming after all.

So I showed them my stole.

It’s not just a job well done by whomever made my stole, that the celebratory festival/season and penitential season of anticipated grief are sewn together, back-to-back. There’s more transition, joy and grief in it than even that.

My family bought this stole at the Poznan Cathedral, the oldest in all of Poland, while adopting our oldest daughter. Adoption creates a resurrection, new life for an entire family, but the new life only and always comes out of fear and grief.

“I will wear this stole before you, every week for awhile,” I said. “It will seem like a long time on one side, but eventually we’ll see the other side again.” At Easter.