We have a prayer that we often use at our church, declaring that God brings "joy out of sorrow, speech out of silence, life out of death". . . but I wonder about that speech part. I think our "Word-y" religion sometimes overdoes it on the words, especially in this culture which has so cheapened speech and writing. One of the things that frustrates me most in churches is the attempt to say everything in a liturgy, instead of leaving room for worshippers to pray and contemplate. It's obvious in moments of tragedy that sometimes silence is a perfectly appropriate response, and not a failure to respond.
The blogosphere is holding a day of blog silence on April 30 in honor of the Virginia Tech victims. Not a bad idea, though I'm sympathetic to those who point out that we should be just as outraged at the senseless deaths of non-college student, non-Americans in so many parts of our world. But there is time for outrage, and time for silence.
Closer to home, the Peace Foundation in North Minneapolis frequently holds vigils in remembrance of those who have died in the escalating violence in that part of our city. They do good work up there, offering some much-needed entry points for those of us who life in other parts of town to get involved and show our support.
Alban Institute just published an article -- OK, a rant -- I wrote about PowerPoint and its abuses. It's in the latest issue of Congregations, which you can't find on the newsstand and is not (at least my article is not) online either. But you can read it if you come to ECLC and look at the bulletin board some time in the next week. (I know, really helpful).
I probably can't quote myself without running into copyright issues, but the gist of it is that I hate it when pastors try to be hip by using PowerPoint, badly. I witnessed a wonderful PowerPoint presentation on Friday night at a benefit dinner, but it was wonderful because of the speaker's enthusiasm, his comfort with the medium, AND the fact that his material really demanded visual display of data. The picture was worth a lot of words, but they did not replace his words, which were inspiring on their own. Given the learning curve of really overhauling your speaking style (not to mention your congregation's expectations), however, I don't think that adding PowerPoint to a sermon is an effort worth most preachers' time.
Thanks to my husband for the tip about this nice commentary on Wendell Berry. On the one hand, I'm envious of anyone who can be so timeless in their thinking. On the other hand, what a sad state of affairs that something written 30 years ago is still so true. Do we ever learn? I'm very excited that Wendell Berry, who doesn't travel much, is coming to Saint Paul in June to support the Land Stewardship Project.
Well, maybe we do. Will also reported back from a gathering of officials and "stakeholders" last Friday who came together to work on a Minnesota climate change plan. Governor Pawlenty gave some remarks, mentioning among other things that it was 30 years ago Friday that President Jimmy Carter gave his famous fireside talk urging Americans to conserve energy. Carter was, of course, villified at the time, but our very own Republican governor said on Friday, and I quote, "Carter was right." Pawlenty also said that any number of environmentalists who were labeled "fringe" in the past have turned out to be right as well, and he called on the audience to offer them a debt of thanks.
Pawlenty still won't support a gas tax, of course, but at least he's willing to publicly admit that environmentalism is no longer fringe issue.
I think I need a more stressful hobby. One of the wonderful things about mountain biking, when I was into it, was that on the trail I couldn't think about anything else but saving life and limb. There was precious little mental space left for re-hashing an adult forum or worrying about why I haven't seen such-and-such a member in a while. I haven't biked much recently because it doesn't go well with two year-olds and five-year-olds, and I really don't need to spend more time apart from my family than I already do. But man, I miss the purity of the experience. Everything else I do now for "fun," -- running, cooking, writing, reading -- leaves me too vulnerable to my own monkey mind, as the Buddhists call it.
My most frustrating preaching dilemma is having too many sermons -- or the start of them, anyway. It's Thursday and I still can't quite pick just one focus, becuase this week's texts are so rich: worship, conversion, confession, and, of course Earth Day coming all in one Sunday.
But here's where I'm headed: we tend to think that worship is an instrumental thing -- we go for our own needs, to get our own lives straightened up/ re-oriented. Maybe we even go to get "converted" in some way. But the texts for this week seem to point the other direction. The point of conversion isn't to get myself straightened out. Conversion leads to worship (see Revelation) and to mission and service (see Acts and John). We too often "do church" as if it's all about me. But our wonderful text from Revelation 5 makes it clear that "power, riches, wisdom, strength, honor and blessing" belong to the lamb, and everything in creation's worship says Christ is worthy of those things. In other words, it's not about you (or me).
Mary Hess again has a great quote which is relevant here. Good stuff.
We're not TV news viewers at our house, so the Virginia Tech incident has felt a bit more distant for us than for many people I know. I was pretty well keeping it out of my mind until this morning, when our nanny mentioned that her son went to college with one of the young professors killed on Monday. Much less than 7 degrees of separation.
We don't watch TV, and my kids don't read yet, so we don't have to struggle yet with the "what do we say to our kids" question, but Mary Hess has posted some good resources for those of you who do have to deal with that uncomfortable issue.
Andrew Root was at our church Sunday to give an adult forum on "children and consumer culture." It's a great presentation and a serious wake-up call to any parent in this culture. It also got me thinkign about how hard it is for the church to be anything but a vendor in this culture, since we are so programmed to consume goods and services of all kinds.
Sometimes I hear members make disparaging comments about larger congregations, since -- although ECLC is mid-size -- we are one of the smaller suburban congregations in our area. "We don't want to be big like that," they say. What "like that" usually means is a cafeteria approach to religion, where people can get in and get out, consume their religious dose and be on their way, and maybe get lost in the crowd. McChurch, we call it
I agree that the last thing we want is a consumer approach to faith community, but it's too easy an out to say that large churches have the corner on this market, so to speak. Small and mid-size churches may be harder to "hide" in, but they are full of the same kind of people -- people who come to church to meet their own needs, maybe to connect with others, maybe to feel that some part of their week is about something bigger than themselves. We switch "brands" fairly easily and complain when the services provided seem substandard. Everyone looks for a church that "fits," and sometimes only later do we discover that we're pulled into commitment that was larger than we intended.
I'm not sure what an intentionally non-consumer church would look like, but I'm pretty sure we're not there yet. And if what consumerism does to the health of children is anything like what it does to the spiritual health of congregations, finding a non-consumer mode of being the church is a vital spiritual task.
The ELCA is blessed to have the gifts of Kenneth Inskeep, who is not only careful with his statistics but also helps us interpret data in ways that go beyond the numbers. This article which was presented to the Council of Bishops is a great example of his work, and helps me further articulate something I've said before but with less factual basis -- namely that we have not wholeheartedly bought into modernity in the way new evangelicals have. This is usually viewed as a curse in terms of church growth, but I suspect in the long run it may preserve our identity in some important ways. Modern life is so compartmentalized, and the answer cannot be to simply replace the traditional systems of connection we've lost -- real neighbors, mutual support, family, non-commerical means of exchange -- with a pseudo-spiritual marketplace. (Miss Manners has often made the same point. We now pay people to do all the things modern life was supposed to rescue us from: matchmakers, advice-giving elders, and so on).
If there's one thing I think mother-pastors can contribute to this conversation, it's our up-close knowledge of the ways that our "work" of building community can compete with our "other job" of raising family. Pastoral life has never been easy, but I believe it was more integrated in the past because the lines of church community and other forms of community (the "parish") were blurrier. Now, we're left choosing -- do I build relationship with my neighbors down the street or do I drive to the next suburb over to visit a new family in my congregation? We develop church "programs" to ease the loneliness of modern life, but in getting to these programs, we have to spend more time outside the other communities of which we are necessarily a part -- neighborhoods, our kids' schools, community organizations. And so we feel as if these two vocations are nearly always in competition with one another. Every working parent feels this competition, but it ought to be less so for clergy, because our families (usually) are part of the communities we serve.
Inskeep says we need more conversation in the ELCA about what constitutes the good life. Amen! And maybe in the process we'll be able to confront the issues of clergy and congregational health in ways that don't just mimic the consumer models of the culture. More about this later. . .
It's baby central around here. In the last 3 days a member of our congregation, a neighbor across the street and Jenell have all welcomed new little ones. Another neighbor is due in the next month, and another good friend is expecting their first. These joys are especially great because several of these women have had difficult roads to motherhood. Unfortunately, today also brought the sad news that a dear friend's 17-week fetus has no heartbeat, so I'll be watching her kids tomorrow as she goes to the hospital.
The proximity of life and death around childbearing is easy to forget in our antibiotic age, but it wasn't that long ago that women's life expectancies were dramatically lower precisely because of the risk of childbirth. And having undergone a miscarriage myself, I know all too well the odd and silent pain of feeling life spring forth and then wither, of wondering why and knowing there's no good answer. I can only be grateful -- again and again -- that many of our little ones do indeed survive and change our lives.
Jenell -- who knows more than almost anyone else I know about the emotional perils of motherhood -- wrote a marvelous post just before her latest travail:
In moments when we suffer in our bodies, minds, or relationships, and perhaps especially when we do so as men and as women, we participate in whatever it is that has gone epically wrong with the world. This doesn't give inherent meaning to pain - in fact, that's the whole point. We are pushed beyond what we can bear, we break, and sometimes don't recover, and there's no reason.
For all who grieve little ones, and all whose arms are full -- blessed rest! Good night.