Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Let's Play Together

I was recently part of the Bishop's Convocation of the New England Synod, a gathering of many of the rostered leaders in New England.  We talked for awhile about the idea of experimenting in the church.  Everyone seems to know that traditional churches are struggling; that many congregations are in different stages of decline; that programs that used to work no longer draw new faces.

We also seem to be aware that we need to do something differently but have trouble pinpointing what that something might be.  Might a new structure help our ministry (something that we are living in Falmouth)?  Will a new worship style be attractive to new folks or repulsive to the rank and file?

So we talked about experimenting, the idea being that we try new things within the congregation (the bishop suggested something as small as lighting altar candles in a nontraditional order) but give them the label of "experiment" as opposed to "program".  An experiment is transitory while a program tries to live forever.  A failed experiment can be walked away from while a program needs more effort to be shut down.

In addition to this discussion, I had thoughts from the work I have doing on stress bouncing around in my head and I realized that there is another angle to talk about this.  The point of the experiment label over a program label is to try to reduce stress within the congregation about change.  When the Altar Guild is fuming at you because you cavalierly changed the order of candle-lighting, something that old Pastor Jensen established for sacred liturgical reasons back in the day, you can always call it "just an experiment" and run away.

But there is stress that is good.  Amusement parks are places you go and pay money to put your body under stress.  The creepy zombie with the clicking teeth at the end of World War Z was a stressor that I bought a ticket to see.  We just had the Cape Cod Marathon in Falmouth a couple of weeks ago and every runner had signed up, paid a fee and trained so that they could undergo a good deal of stress.  Good stress is exhilarating. Good stress is normally voluntary (you choose to take part), temporary (you know it will end) and moderate (you know you can endure it).  Another name for good stress is play.

I am all for experimentation and innovation, but I hope that we can bring a spirit of play to our work together as congregations, realizing that the order of candle-lighting does not define us.  We can play with our worship and our groups and teams and committees when we as a body are centered on good news that sets us free for joyful play.  Let's play together.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Wishing for Cloudy Sundays

"So does your attendance go up in the summer?"  When other clergy find out that I am serving on Cape Cod, this is a common question.  I have been told that the population in Falmouth triples in size during the summer.  People take residence in summer homes and time shares.  Tourists come through to spend time on our beaches.  For anyone involved in a business, summer is the high point of the Cape economy.

I would like to say that this is reflected in Sunday worship but it is rarely the case that summer attendance matches what we see in the fall or spring.  Like any other congregation, various members will be on vacation on any particular summer Sunday.  We have a few visitors who come for a single Sunday while on vacation.  We have a few people who only come in the summer.  It seems to me that we see the most visitors in the fall when Midwestern Lutherans wanting to avoid the crowds come and join us.

My internship supervisor had strong beliefs about the weather and worship.  I remember how, as we were robing up for worship, he would look out the sacristy window and say, "It's sunny.  There won't be too many in church today."  The next Sunday he would look out the window and say, "It's rainy. Pews are going to be light"  Another Sunday, he would say, "It's awfully cold.  Probably won't be many here."  Being on the Cape a beautiful summer morning leads people to the beach and not the pew.  Is it proper to pray for cloudy, temperate Sundays without precipitation?

The end of summer on the Cape feels like a return to normalcy for residents.  The traffic lightens and only school buses slow us down.  The beaches are clear of tourists and dogs can frolic in the waves.  The regular crew comes back to church and Sundays feel a little more predictable.  In spite of being in a center for tourism, we seem to the follow the patterns of the churches of New York and Pennsylvania where I previously served; the patterns of a Midwestern Lutheran childhood.  So our attendance does not go up in the summer, no matter how much I pray for cloudy Sundays.

Monday, June 24, 2013

Doing Nothing This Summer

This is an article that I wrote for the Cape Cod Times, our local newspaper:

Doing Nothing This Summer
                It is summer on Cape Cod and there are so many things to do.  As you have been reading the rest of the paper today you may have read about concerts, theater productions, art shows and festivals.  You may be struggling through an internal debate about the joy of the beach versus the fear of the shark.   If you are a parent, your children have recently been released from school and are now begging to find something to do and you will find it, if only to retain some sanity.  You will research the opportunities for nature hikes and mini golf and pirate cruises.  You will do it because in our culture everyone has to have something to do.
                The 17th century French mathematician and philosopher Blaise Pascal once wrote, “The sole cause of man’s unhappiness is that he does not know how to stay quietly in his room.”  Now it may be that Pascal was never able to get his ball through the windmill on the seventh hole and the ensuing frustration led him to a need for quiet contemplation.  I think that Pascal points to one of our cultural weaknesses, the need for constant action and stimulation, made worse by the fact that, even if I am quietly in my room, I can whip out a smartphone or tablet for a quick game of Angry Birds.
                We put value in productivity, getting things done.  I keep a daily and weekly to-do list and it never empties, but there is satisfaction in crossing something off.  We are taught to take care of business even when we are on vacation.  We are taught that the more you do, the better you are.  In vacation terms, the more things you do, the better the vacation is. 
                We have lost the ancient idea that there is great value in doing nothing.  I don’t mean doing nothing for the rest of your life which I would define as laziness or sloth.  I mean doing nothing as a purposeful pause from activity in order to simply be.  Some might call it Sabbath.  Some might call it retreat.  Some might call it mindfulness.  Some might recall the words of Psalm 46, “Be still and know that I am God.”  I call it prayer and find that I encounter the divine most deeply in stillness and silence.
                Cape Cod is a brilliant place for doing nothing.  You can do nothing at any number of beaches.  You can do nothing at sunset on the Quisset Knob.  You can do nothing in the cedar swamp by Marconi Beach.  You can do nothing at the top of the Pilgrim Monument (though you had to do something to get there.)  You can do nothing overlooking ponds, dunes and piping plovers.  You can do nothing on quiet trails through the forest.  There are so many opportunities for doing nothing.
                So go ahead and do nothing, even for a short time.  For at least ten minutes, turn off your electronic devices and put down that book (reading counts as doing).  Sit on a bench or a comfortable chair or on warm sand.  Then do nothing.  Breathe.  Listen.  Watch.  Let the thoughts of what you could be doing or should be doing pass by; they can wait.  Breathe.  Listen.  Watch.  Be still.  For a few moments, embrace the joy of doing nothing.  Every day.  Do nothing.  It is good.  It is a gift.
                Do nothing.  Then do something.  Pascal wasn’t advocating that we should spend our whole lives quietly in our rooms.  He was suggesting that we need to learn to be comfortable in stillness and silence.  Before we can truly and honestly engage with another person, we need to be comfortable with ourselves.  Before we can be fully present doing something, we need to be content doing nothing. 
                So do nothing this summer and then embrace all the wonderful things that there are to be done on Cape Cod.  Go to that concert.  Read that book.  Take that swim.  Knock one through the windmill in honor of Pascal.  Do nothing and then do something joyful.
                But don’t stop there.  Go home and do nothing as well.  Doing nothing can change the way you look at the world.  Doing nothing has inspired the works of poets, playwrights and novelists.  It has strengthened the work of social activists and environmentalists.  It has been part of the rhythm of life of the saints and mystics of many religious traditions.  Do nothing and then do something meaningful.

                I am going to do nothing this summer and I hope you will too.  There is great value in doing nothing.

Thursday, May 30, 2013

Unpacking Pentecost

It is two weeks past Pentecost Sunday as I write this, but I am still hashing out some of the thoughts which Pentecost stirred up this year.  Most years Pentecost Sunday doesn't make much of an impact.  It is a festival Sunday that competes with college graduations and other end of the school year celebrations and some years Memorial Day weekend.  The general feel of Pentecost in the Lutheran church is kind of like the Pentecost reading from Acts 2, feeling slightly forced and awkward.  Every year our reader dutifully stumbles through the list of nations hearing the good news in their own languages (Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphlylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs).

I have taken part in several services where we tried to make the Pentecost story more dramatic.  We tried reading the text in a variety of languages to highlight the international feel of the day.  We tried reading the text in a round to convey the noisy confusion we imagined that day to be.  We asked everyone to wear red so the congregation might look like flame.  We had the worship assistant process with a bowl of fire.  (It was a small bowl with an alcohol-soaked rag in it.  She was not happy.)  Yet no matter what I have seen tried to promote the day of Pentecost the overall feel is "That was interesting but I hope it doesn't happen here."  We get our annual dose of the Spirit's discombobulation and then settle back into our routine of good worship with good order.

This year as I was preparing for Pentecost, an idea clicked that hadn't before.  I noticed when the Spirit came to the disciples, it led them out of the house in which they were staying.  It seems like a small detail but it made me think about the orientation of the congregations I have served.  Namely, most of the time when we talk about outreach and evangelism, our focus is on getting people into our house.  We host concerts, lectures, meals and other special events with the hope that someone who steps onto the property might return to the property for worship.  We fret over friendliness and hospitality with the hope of turning the one-time guest into a repeat visitor.  Welcoming people into the house becomes an overriding concern for congregations and clergy.

Yet as I encountered the Pentecost story this year, I was confronted with the outward push of the Spirit.  The Spirit doesn't say, "Come in."  The Spirit says, "Go out."  Go out and witness to the good news.  Go out and live the story.

Perhaps the reason that Pentecost is awkward is that the story goes against our sensibility of church.  We want to stay in, where we are comfortable, accepted and know what is going to happen.  We assume that other people want what we want.  The Spirit sends us out with a story to tell.  We want to stay in where we know the language and culture.  We assume that other people will want to be like us.  The Spirit sends us out to tell the story in the language of the spiritual but not religious, the agnostic and atheist, and the bitter ex-church attendee.  We want to be inside, where faith is neatly compartmentalized within the four walls of the sanctuary.  We assume there is a clear distinction between church and the rest of life.  The Spirit calls us out with a story that impacts every moment and every place.

The Spirit calls us out.  I wonder what the church will look like if we listen.

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Smuggling Blueberry Kringle

My mother was born in Denmark and grew up in Racine, Wisconsin, which is home to a number of families of Danish heritage.  One of the defining tastes of my youth was Danish kringle.  Every time we visited my grandparents, there would be a kringle waiting for us and a few more purchased while we were in town.
Recently, I was back in Wisconsin for the funeral of my grandmother (and they did have kringle at the funeral home).  It was a good opportunity to be with my family and to remember all the the good times that we had together in my grandparents' little house.  

It was also a good opportunity to remember my Midwestern roots.  I shared with my congregation how different the sense of being Lutheran is in Racine and on Cape Cod.  Racine, with a population of around 80000 has 14 Evangelical Lutheran Church in America congregations, 10 Missouri synod Lutheran congregations and 3 Wisconsin synod congregations.  I'm sure there are also a few independent Lutheran churches but they are harder to research.  In Racine they might not ask "Are you Lutheran?" but "What sort of Lutheran are you?"  Cape Cod, with a population of slightly over 200000 has a grand total of 4 Lutheran congregations.  No matter how I drive, it takes me at least 40 minutes to get to the next closest Lutheran church on the Cape.  It made me realize that on the Cape, we need to do a more intentional job of defining ourselves because we are not a major player in the religious culture.

In any case, partly out of nostalgia for those Midwestern roots, partly out of a desire to share my experience with my children and partly because I really like kringle, I decided to take one on the plane with me.  My parents were kind enough to stop at a bakery on the way to the airport (They also bought a kringle, so the detour was not in vain for them).  I was dropped of at the Milwaukee airport with my check-in bag, my laptop bag and a blueberry kringle.

I toyed with idea of stowing it in my suitcase because a kringle would be fairly awkward to carry around an airport not to mention on two plane flights, but I had visions of trying to convince my children that well-traveled, smashed pastry is just as good as the regular stuff.  However, I discovered that the pastry was just about as large as my laptop.  The kringle traveled in the protected area usually reserved for a computer.  The computer traveled unprotected.  Everything made it back to Massachusetts with just a small amount of frosting loss.

I could have gotten home and ordered a kringle online and I will probably do so sometime this year.  They ship them in sturdy containers that seem to travel well.  But there was something about taking that piece of Wisconsin with me, protecting it from the press of crowds at O'Hare, carefully sliding it under a seat during the plane ride, and offering it to my family when I returned home that briefly connected those Midwestern roots to a Cape Cod life, offering a piece of my childhood to my own children.  It was worth the effort.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

After These Things...

I am writing this a week after the bombing at the Boston Marathon.  At this point the suspects have been identified and caught.  The story still makes the front page of the newspaper but no longer fills it.  We are settling in and calming down.  With the culture of running that is part of Cape Cod, especially the Falmouth area, many people feel a kinship with the victims of the attack, having crossed the marathon finish line themselves.

Soon we will start hearing stories about the good that has come out of these attacks.  We are already hearing stories of heroes, marathoners finishing the marathon then running to give blood; first responders and soldiers running toward the blast to help others.  There will be other good things that happen as communities band together to help those who were injured.  I do not want to take away from any of these stories.

At the same time I do want to be careful as we hear about the good that comes out of tragedy.  Sometimes we reach a place where we use that good to justify the evil saying, "These attacks were allowed to happen so that good things might come out of them."  This thought process is part of our very human need to find a reason for things.  For Christians this tendency may go back to the image of the cross where we see an ultimate good coming out of a violent action.

Sometimes there is no reason.  Sometimes we need to be clear that evil is evil.  I do not believe that there is reason for the attacks at the Boston marathon that will make sense outside of the minds of the perpetrators.  I do not believe that there is a political or symbolic reason that can in any way justify attacks on the innocent.

But after these things, good will come.  For some people, they will see the good that comes out of evil as a triumph of the human spirit.  For me, as a person of faith, I see the divine at work when good can come from senseless violence.  This good does not justify the violence or the evil, but it reminds me that evil cannot have the final victory.

Thursday, April 4, 2013

Now the Silence

During the Lenten season, we hosted prayer services that were shaped by silence.  We would gather together and use different techniques for gaining focus.  One week we used the flame of a candle; another, words of scripture; still another, our large Good Friday cross.  After between fifteen and twenty-five minutes of silence, we debriefed the time, talking about insights and the experience. 

I can't say that we had huge particpation.  I believe at the largest there were ten of us together.  But those that did attend seemed to find the time both spiritually helpful and extremely peaceful.  I was personally impressed with the ideas and interpretation that came out of our work with scripture.

Spending even that short time working with silence has made me much more aware of how the church either lives and works with silence or dismisses it as uncomfortable dead air.  I have attended unprogrammed Quaker meetings that embrace silence.  I have heard people talk about silence as the result of poor planning.  This brings me to my title for this post.

I recently attended a service where a hymn was played during the collection of the offering by the name of, "Now the Silence."  It's a fairly short song with only one verse that is frequently sung in preparation for Communion.  The service was crowded so the song didn't cover the full time for the collection.  In order to avoid a time of actual silence, the organist launched into a second chorus of "Now the Silence."  I had a moment of paradox and irony when I realized that we were singing about silence in order to avoid silence.

Silence is the canvas on which worship is painted.  It is the prism by which light is divided into a spectrum of colors.  The church needs to find a place for silence, for we worship a God who is the God of peace and stillness as well as the God music and celebration.  We worship a God who speaks in a still, small voice as well as a God who speaks out of whirlwinds. 

There is great depth in silence.  I hope that the church can come to experience it as a gracious gift of peace and rest.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Snow Days

I have served in three different congregations over the past fifteen years, one in central Pennsylvania, one in upstate New York and now on Cape Cod.  In all three calls I have lived in a parsonage adjacent to the church building.  Because of this, I have been slow to cancel services in the case of bad weather.  I can always make the commute.

When I was serving in rural Pennsylvania, the Congregational church down the road had a weather committee (a sub-committee of the property committee). When it snowed, one of the members of the weather committee would get in his four-wheel drive truck and see how bad the roads were and whether the parking lot had been cleared.  Then he would call the other members and they would inform the pastor of the decision of the committee.  The pastor never had to make the choice. 

Whenever I have a discussion of weather policies it usually comes down to the devotion of a "little, old lady."  I use the quotes because in all three congregations the same example has been brought forward.  Everyone is certain that there is a little, old lady who is so devoted to the church that unless we call off our services she will get in her car and drive through blizzards and earthquakes to make it on time.  It's never a large, young man.  It's never an average-sized, middle-aged woman.  It's always a little, old lady who makes this sacrifice.

In my congregations, I have yet to meet that little, old lady.  In any kind of discussion I have had with the ladies of the church, I have been told, "Pastor, you're great, but..."  But I'm not dumb enough to drive through a blizzard to hear you.  But I'm not so foolish that I can't look out my window and know I shouldn't drive.  But do you really think I can't get on without you.

I think that the image of devotion is one that is helpful for our congregations.  Most of the time when the weather report is bad, people have already canceled church in their minds.  Bad weather is a perfectly valid excuse to take church off the to-do list.  It's not that the people don't want to go (at least this is my hope) but it is nice to have a reason not to go, to sleep in, hang out, watch the snow fall. 

We also want to imagine that there is a little, old lady who will risk life and limb to make the trip.  We imagine that she will be there in our place even on those Sundays when it is not snowing but we are too busy or too tired or just need a break.  We want her there as a model of devotion, standing and sitting in our place when we choose not to be there.

Perhaps it does matter than she is imagined to be older.  I think it is common to assume that older generations were more devoted than we are today.  I'm sure when the little, old lady was younger, she could imagined little, old ladies who were far more devoted than she.  It is similar to the way I hear the early church idealized in its unity of faith and devotion.  Yet each generation struggles to maintain faith in its own time and context.  Sometimes the struggle of faith is with animosity.  Sometimes the struggle of faith is with being culturally acceptable.  Sometimes the struggle of faith is with apathy.  The struggle is part of the walk of discipleship.  May the next generation of Christians look back at us in our context and find a model of devotion.

Monday, February 4, 2013

The Introverted Pastor

In a recent sermon I spoke about the challenge of being a pastor with an introverted personality.  I live in a culture and carry out a call that favors an extroverted personality.  I have served as a pastor for fifteen years.  Throughout that time, and in the process leading up to my ordination, people have questioned whether introversion and pastoral ministry can coexist effectively.

Part of this has to do with expectations that people bring to pastoral ministry.  The pastors that many congregants seem to remember best are those who were outgoing and made their presence known in the community.  They made the congregation seem friendly because they were naturally friendly and effusive.  My experience has been that this kind of strong personality in a pastor can cover up some shortcomings in hospitality in the congregation.  When that pastor retires or moves on, the congregation suddenly has to deal with its own shortcomings, has to deal with the fact that although Pastor Jensen was a welcoming person, the congregation itself may not be.

I also think that part of the desire for extroverted pastors is a hope that an outgoing personality might change the trends of decline that many congregations are experiencing.  The right pastor might be the magic bullet that will save the congregation, change all those spiritual but not religious people into spiritual and religious people.  We can't get people to come to our church but maybe a friendly pastor can.  Yet as we look across the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (as well as any number of denominations) we see that even friendly Pastor Jensen's congregation is in decline.

At one point it was enough to be friendly.  When religious practice was more of a standard part of American culture, then the friendliest congregations with the best programs tended to grow.  Yet our culture is finding new ways to cultivate friendship and connection.  Many families are finding their needs for youth programs met by other sources.  I have frequently been told that, even when there is a spark of interest, younger people see church as one more thing to do in a plethora of activities.

The role of congregations will have to change in the coming years.  Many of our churches will be smaller and will need to accept that reality.  I have no doubt that the pastoral role will change as well. 

What I hear these days is not so much a desire for a community center kind of congregation, but a desire for a depth of faith.  Thankfully for me as an introvert, depth is something that introverts do well.  I love working with silence and prayer, art and creativity.  Give me a quiet retreat over a networking conference any day.  As Paul writes, "There are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit." (1 Corinthians 12:4)  In the near future, the gifts of the introvert may come to be appreciated in the church just as the gifts of the extrovert have been appreciated for the past few decades. 

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

What I did over Christmas Vacation

I took the Sunday after Christmas off from preaching.  My family didn't have any plans for traveling so I decided to check out a local congregation.  I won't name names but it is the closest thing we have to a megachurch in the Falmouth area (and probably for most of Cape Cod).  It's an independent congregation with three Sunday morning services each with a couple of hundred people in attendance.

The basic format involved a light rock band playing three praise songs (with words projected on a central screen).  This was followed by a scripture reading, a half-hour sermon and a pastoral prayer.  The full service was a little less than an hour.  As we were filing out, the next service was making its way into the auditorium.

I've been to this kind of worship before, so I wasn't surprised by its lack of formal liturgy.  There were some worship decisions that I respected, like the absence of worship bulletins.  I was given a paper with a few announcements but didn't need it for worship, so my eyes could always be focused on what was happening.  There were some decisions that I found lacking.  I have never quite understood how the sharing of the peace (an important theological and communal moment) has turned into, "Say hello to your neighbor."

What I found interesting was how the congregation dealt with some of the issues that we also have in worship.  For instance, during five years of ministry here in Falmouth, I have sat through a few hours of discussions about how to begin our worship.  Does the prelude begin at 9:30 or at 9:25?  Should we gather in silence to prepare or should we have music playing?  Do we start promptly at 9:30 or should give some time since everyone seems to come at the last minute?

At the congregation I visited, I arrived at 8:15 for an 8:30 service.  The band was warming up.  They stopped around 8:25.  8:30 came and went.  Some recorded music was playing over loudspeakers.  People gathered (noisily, since they were talking over the music) and the worship began promptly at 8:40.  There was even a clock projected on the screen counting down to the start time.  The feeling was informal, but the design was intentional.

I have come to a point in my life as a pastor where I see very few rights and wrongs about worship.  There are likes and dislikes.  There are traditions and innovations.  Every choice we make includes some and excludes others.  This is partly why so many worship styles continue to develop.  We are all inspired by the same good news but respond to it with a beautiful variety.

Part of my response to my worship experience is colored by a fairly introverted personality.  As popular as the contemporary style may be, I personally find it too loud and too busy.  I find a need to be still and experience God's presence.  The worship style I experienced was more focused on getting me amped up in joyful praise (not that there's anything wrong with that). 

I'm not trying to step into the liturgical versus contemporary debate.  I sometimes experience liturgical worship that is overly busy, overly concerned with what is proper.  I find that many organ preludes are also too loud and too busy.  I wonder if there are others like me who seek a more peaceful approach to worship, a place to step away from the general busyness of life and find the divine in stillness and peace.

It is not a matter of right and wrong, but faithful people worshiping God in a variety of ways.

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

A New Year in Falmouth

I am sure that the internet is crawling with blogs talking about new years and new starts.  It seems a good time to update things, share intentions.  It is my hope to use this blog more frequently in the coming year and hopefully get more of the congregation to follow it.  We'll see what the year brings.

Christ Lutheran is getting closer to making a decision about whether to adopt the structure that was proposed several months ago.  The language has been drafted and needs to be approved in a couple of weeks.  Anyone outside the church world reading this will probably think, "They didn't do that yet?"  Some folks in the church world will look at it say, "Wow.  They are moving right along." 

It's true that things take extra steps when you are working in the church, especially in any branch of the church that seeks to give authority to the people of the congregation and not just the pastors.  We have to get as many people as we can on the same page.  We have to explain the benefits, do the prep work and then wait for the vote.  In the midst of all of this we trust that the Holy Spirit is at work, shaping the process as we move in new directions.

So in a couple of weeks we may be talking about groups and teams instead of standing committees.  Again, those outside the church will be unimpressed, but for the congregation, I hope this represents a new start, seeking to minister in creative ways; seeking to have an impact on the local community; seeking to share good news in a new year.