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Monthly Archives: April 2012

The Birdcage Church

Last year, while doing some spring cleaning, I came across an old birdcage. I had bought the birdcage about 10 years ago at a store similar to Hobby Lobby. I don’t exactly remember what I thought I was going to do with it, but it was one of those things that looks great when you first buy it, but soon ends up in the back storeroom of the basement. Just as I was about to throw it out, I decided to give it to our 6 year-old neighbor, McKenna. And she loved it. She quickly set about trying to catch a bird. Her method was subtle. She would leave the birdcage in a spot that she thought was likely to have a lot of bird traffic–next to a bush, in the middle of the yard, or under the tree. Importantly, McKenna would leave the door to the birdcage open. Don and I enjoyed coming home in the evening and seeing where McKenna had placed the open-door birdcage. After a week or two of leaving the cage in various places (with its door always open), McKenna must have realized she wasn’t going to convince a bird to come inside; consequently, she gave up. The birdcage disappeared and McKenna went on to other pursuits.

However, the image of the birdcage with its little door propped open has stayed with me. It reminds me of how the Church often views getting new members. We leave the door open and hope for the best.

An open door is nice, but it just won’t do it.

Yesterday I was at a UCC church giving a pitch for OCWM and someone asked me, “how do churches grow?” I gave kind of a quick, standard answer– personal invitation to worship, warmth and friendliness of church members, necessity of a growing demographic. But in thinking about it, I would say that my answer was pretty lame. The question is not how do you make a church grow? The question is, how do you keep a church from growing? To keep a church from growing takes work. And unfortunately, most of our congregations are very good at it.

Churches don’t grow because growth means change. We don’t really think of it like that. We don’t think about growth as change, but at its heart, it is.
Here is a universal example of a church that is so terrified of change that it will never allow itself to grow. A growth terrified church always has this characteristic: only the ladies who have been working in the kitchen for 30 years are allowed to touch ANYTHING in the kitchen. If that is true in one’s church, my advice is to pack up and find a new place to worship because your church will not be around in 10 years. The terrorist church kitchen is a sign of approaching death.

Personally, change makes me nervous. Change gives me anxiety because it means that all that I know and understand (which could translate to “all that I control”) is no longer my reality. So I feel out of control. You’re wondering why would a pastor be so fearful of change that she would secretly wish her congregation would never grow? Crazy, right? Right. Not at all descriptive of today’s clergy? Nope. Very descriptive. I am not saying I am paralyzed by my fear of change. I’m just really aware of it. Awareness of one’s vulnerabilities is one of the nice parts of growing up. (You did notice I said “growing up” not “old”, right?).

We have been experiencing a pleasant and consistent growth at Zion– about 35 members in 3 years. Our new members are a diverse group of talented, interesting individuals who have brought a wealth of experience, energy, and enthusiasm to our congregation. We are blessed. We are also not fearful. And our kitchen is run by very sane, not terrorist women.

So why is Zion growing? Because we are one of the rare church communities (OK, I’m shamelessly prejudiced) that embraces change. For example, when three new members came to me and said that they wanted to start a coffee hour following church (Zion hasn’t had one for decades), the response of every long-term member that I talked about it with was “oh good! What a great idea!” Many churches would distrust a new member making such a big change. Zion members just line up for the cookies.

An open door is important. But like my little neighbor and her birdcage, you have to do a lot more than open the door. You have to open yourself also.

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Posted by on April 26, 2012 in Blogging With Jane

 

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What is the Vatican Thinking?

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All my life I have loved any movie or book with a nun in it. I watched every episode of The Flying Nun. I never missed The Bells of St. Mary (who needs Bing Crosby when you have Ingrid Bergman). Then there was The Sound of Music, Agnes of God, Dead Man Walking, and Sister Act. Two of my favorite books are In This House of Brede and The Nun’s Story. I loved nuns even though I had never met one until finally–Sister Maureen. Sister Maureen was my CPE supervisor. She was trained as a Sister of Charity and a Jungian analyst–a very effective combination for a CPE supervisor. Sister Maureen was everything the nuns of literature and cinema were—tough, funny, smart, compassionate. If she could have taken flight, Sister Maureen would have been the perfect nun.

My husband says my admiration (and possible obsession) with nuns is entirely because I did NOT grow up going to Catholic School. Well, maybe. But nuns were and continue to be the heartbeat of the Church. Throughout history and right up until the present day, nuns are the ones who actually do the work of Christ.

So what is wrong with the Vatican? A few days ago, a Vatican watchdog group, anal with orthodoxy (not its real name, but a good description), published a document criticizing/bullying the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, the umbrella organization for American nuns. The Vatican reprimands the nuns for “certain radical feminist themes that are incompatible with the Catholic faith.” They don’t like the nuns’ focus on social justice or support of President Obama’s healthcare reform.

It makes me wonder what you have to do to get to be a Cardinal or a Bishop? Promise to never read the Gospel?

Jesuit priest James Martin states it very well in his tweet, “Catholic sisters are my heroes.… [we need to] acknowledge the hidden ways that these women have generously served God, served the poor and served this country.”

I know, I know. I’m blogging a tweet. But Martin has it right. Catholic nuns are the heroes of the Church. He puts it better in another tweet: “Catholic sisters teach me what it means to persevere in ministry without the benefit of institutional power.”

And that is the problem. The nuns are without institutional power. They do the dirty work of Jesus while the Vatican does the dirty work of the Pharisees (apologies to the Pharisees–they always get such a bad wrap).

Shame on you, Vatican. Once again you had a chance to stand on the side of social justice, and once again, you disappointed us.

 
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Posted by on April 25, 2012 in Blogging With Jane

 

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No Time to Blog Monday

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but here is an excellent article. I would love to get the author as a speaker at Zion.

 
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Posted by on April 23, 2012 in Blogging With Jane

 

Got Fish?

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Luke 24: 41-42

41While in their joy they were disbelieving and still wondering, he said to them, “Have you anything here to eat?” 42They gave him a piece of broiled fish, 43and he took it and ate in their presence.

Today’s scripture abounds with potential sermon themes.

I hate that.

The endless possibilities practically overwhelm me: hospitality, seeing Jesus in the stranger, walking with Jesus, one’s faith journey, living out the resurrection, witness, believing, seeing, breaking bread, the eucharist. You name it, it’s in Luke 24:13-49. Ugh.

But the biggest problem for me isn’t the overwhelming number of sermon wannabes as much as the fact that I don’t even like any of them. They feel worn out. Tired. It’s sort of how I feel when preaching the prodigal son– I just can’t drum up one more even vaguely original word.

To make matters worse, as I jot down my first thoughts upon reading the scripture, I feel myself drifting off. I’m sure Fred Craddock would agree that if the pastor drifts off when writing the sermon, the congregation can be counted on for a communal snore.

The only line in the entire 36 line text that grabs me at all is when Jesus says “Do you have anything to eat?” How often have I stood in front of the open door of our refrigerator only to conclude we have nothing to eat (a very American consumerism conclusion of course–the more accurate statement is “we don’t have anything I want to eat”). Or what about when it is time to make dinner and Don and I look at each other and say “is there anything in the house to cook?” We’re usually on our way home from somewhere and unfortunately the question ends in our swerving the car into the closest restaurant, when we really should swerve into Hyvee and buy real food and go home prepare it.

There is some consensus among the commentaries that Jesus asks for food because the desire for food, and the subsequent eating of it (no one discusses digestion and elimination but maybe that’s OK), would prove that he was a flesh and blood human and not a ghost. Jesus’s request for food was a clear demonstration of the glory of God, the reality of the resurrection, and the nearness of the Kingdom.

Actually, I think he was hungry. And he did what we all do when we’re hungry– he opened the refrigerator door and stood in front of it. Well, in a 1st century kind of way. He asked the age-old question “do we have anything to eat?” And his friends gave him food and he ate it and they probably ate also. And then suddenly everything was right between them. They were friends again. They gave him food and he opened their minds. He opened their minds and they believed. He said, “Now it’s time for you guys to carry on without me.” And they did.

What are you eating tonight?
See You in the Pews,
Jane

Really good fish recipe
The facts about Aqua farming (everything you never wanted to know).
Why the Mayo Clinic thinks we should eat fish.

 
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Posted by on April 17, 2012 in Blogging With Jane

 

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Behind Closed Doors

John 20 :19-22
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19When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” 20After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. 21Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” 22When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit.”

A day of rain—the first for weeks. There is something nice about the dark sky and the sound of rain on the roof. I am sitting at my desk in the church office glad for the intimacy one can feel on a dark, rain filled day. A post-Easter day for reflection.

John’s Gospel tells us that the disciples were huddled in a room hiding when Jesus found them. I don’t like John’s anti-semitic editorializing. The disciples were not fearful of the Jews; the Jews were oppressed themselves. They were fearful of the religious and political elite that executed Jesus for his dissenting and radical preaching. And the for fact that he thought he was the Messiah–not a small issue for the status quo. So they hid behind locked doors–fearful to let the world in and fearful to venture out. I wonder what they thought they were waiting for? If jesus hadn’t appeared, how long would they have stayed put?

Easy to criticize those cowardly disciples. Yet, I kind of relate. Has the today’s Church locked its own doors? Have we like the disciples chosen to close doors instead of open them? They did it out of fear of bodily harm or even death. We also are afraid of death. But not that kind of death. Our fear is the death of tradition. The death of how it used to be when Church meant people and money–what a heady combination that would be. But is our paralyzing fear of what might be (death of denomination) keeping us from what could be (new life in Resurrection)?

With the numbers (numbers of members and numbers of dollars) slowly but steadily shrinking, those of us that find much of our professional significance dependent on the structures of organized religion are growing fearful. Even if we seldom admit it. Are we as clergy and church leaders closing doors, just when we should be consciously and systematically flinging them open? Trying so hard to revive in old ways that we succeed only in double-bolting an already locked door? Do we really want Jesus to breathe the breath of the Holy Spirit on us?

It might change everything.

See You in the Pews,
Jane

 
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Posted by on April 13, 2012 in Blogging With Jane

 

Be Yourself and the Kingdom is Yours

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John Irving, one of my all-time favorite authors, says that he devotes an entire year to planning a novel before he actually begins to write. But even before he starts his detailed planning, he writes the last sentence. The last sentence. Irving starts with the last sentence and builds the entire story towards it.

You wonder if the writer of the Gospel of Mark might not have done the same thing. His last sentence is “So they went out and fled the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.” What a line to end on. And did Mark, like Irving, plan the entire story line around it?

I think he did. Fearful, mute followers who are still loved and brought into the Kingdom fit perfectly with the upside-down justice of Jesus. A messiah who enters the city on a lowly donkey, elevates the disenfranchised, saves the world through love and peace, and is executed with criminals couldn’t possibly have heroic followers. Naturally he would have trembling, bewildered, and scared-into-silence followers.

Mark is telling us that you don’t have to be heroic to follow Jesus. You just have to be you. And if you find yourself overwhelmed by the very event you hoped and prayed for then you can count yourselves right up there with those he loved the most.

May you have a Holy Easter.

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Posted by on April 6, 2012 in Blogging With Jane

 

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Jesus, Tuesdays, and the Changing Church

Today is Tuesday of Holy Week. According to the Gospel, it is on this day that Jesus returns to Jerusalem where he is confronted by the Temple leadership for his actions the day before (Jesus cleared the temple in what seems to have been a pique of poorly managed anger). The next day the religious leaders justifiably question his authority and look for some answers. However, Jesus offers no apologies or even explanations; in fact, he answers with exasperating double talk. Apparently, the raging anger of the day before is now expressing itself in verbal tantrums.

Jesus is not in a good place. Tuesday was not a good day for him.

That’s funny because for me, Tuesdays are always good. Yeh, I know. This isn’t about me, it isn’t my Holy Week, I’m not Jesus in Jerusalem, and by comparing my Tuesday with Jesus’s Tuesday, I am violating all sorts of theological rules–not to mention, it’s a little weird.

However, as much as you may deny it, we all (Christians, that is) personalize Jesus until we think he is us. Or at the least, he becomes a person in our own 21st century culture. In one sense that’s not such a bad thing– it may be the only way we can relate to Jesus. And if our mandate is to “follow” him, then we are going to have to figure him out for ourselves at least a little.

But to say that my Tuesday of Holy Week is really good and Jesus’s Tuesday of Holy Week was really bad, is a little superficial, but I’m going to go with it anyway. Why is my Tuesday good? Because I am at the church all day on Tuesdays. The church office is a great place to spend one’s working day. I feel energized here. There is a pleasant atmosphere of optimism and hope in this building during the day. I don’t know if Marilyn and Janice feel it, but I certainly do. Everything has an element of joy. On Tuesday, Sunday is still far enough off that I am not in a panic about the sermon. On Tuesday all things are still possible.

Maybe Jesus wanted to feel that way. Maybe he wanted to feel that all things were still possible. The arrest, the betrayal, the cross were potential, future events. Since we know the end of the story, we assume Jesus did also. But maybe not. Maybe he was holding out hope that the “cup may still be taken ” from him.

And yet, even though Jesus was walking around Jerusalem with a dark cloud following him, he continued teaching. In the time between Tuesday of Holy week until Maundy Thursday (our names for the week of course, not Jesus’s), he taught some of his most moving parables: the parable of the wedding banquet, the vineyard, paying taxes. And in the middle of his own personal anguish, he gave us the Great Commandment. In other words, in the face of approaching disaster, Jesus stayed true to his calling.

Some would say that the mainline Protestant church is in the face of approaching disaster. And maybe we are. Nationally, everything about us is diminishing– numbers of members, congregational stability, money, energy, tradition. Some would say we are fast becoming an endangered species. Kenneth McFayden, Dean of The Center for Ministry and Leadership Development at Union Theological Seminary, writes in an articl about today’s church:

The ethos in which many congregations once thrived, regardless of their size, has changed. An era has ended. On some level, many congregations are keenly aware that how they discern and live into the future, not how they engaged in ministry in past years, will determine their viability and vitality.

The one thing Jesus did not do, is leave Jerusalem. He lived into his future–scary as it was. Jesus was onboard his own personal Titanic and yet he stayed. Didn’t even appear to grab a life jacket.

When I read articles like McFayden’s, I have mixed feelings. Mostly I feel frustrated. Why must the present generation of church people stay so cemented to the recent past–particularly the church of the past 40 years? We are always focusing on the past and how wonderful it was and then we sit stuck in that bygone moment.

I agree– it is “the end of an era”. Nothing evokes nostalgia and regret like that particular statement. And is OK to sigh briefly and mourn the passing of the era. However, anymore sentiment over it is pathetic. It is always the end of an era–for someone or something somewhere. Are we not called to serve the church as it is today? And if the Church is facing a time of instability and change, then why are we not rising to the occasion and embracing the opportunity to see what new life this change and instability might bring?

I feel fortunate that I was never a part of the church when the church was thriving– 1945-1985. People tell me that during this time the pews were full, children abounded, and money flowed. I wouldnt know–I spent a lot of those Sundays at Starbucks reading the New York Times and drinking latte. I started attending church in the late 1990’s and was ordained in 2004. As a pastor, I spend a lot of my time building up membership, talking about money, starting programs, developing social media, writing grants, developing community outreach, and doing informal, although nearly constant, strategic planning. All those efforts are squeezed in around preaching, teaching, pastoral counseling, serving the sacraments, visitation, and all the other stuff pastors used to do when the church was thriving and they didnt have to do all the other stuff.

So I would like to ask Dr. McFayden, “what’s the big deal?” Isnt this what being a pastor is supposed to be about?

Jesus had every chance to leave Jerusalem. His was a world in disaster. But he stayed and he died and he rose again. Yes, we serve an institution in decline. But I think we should stay and see where God leads us.

And anyway, it’s Tuesday. All things are still possible on Tuesday.

 
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Posted by on April 3, 2012 in Blogging With Jane

 
 
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