Church Playground: Random Thoughts

Nancy and I were out for a late afternoon drive that took us by the urban church I served for 28 years—the Warren Ave Presbyterian Church in Saginaw.

We were a bit startled to drive down Weadock Street, behind the church, to see several children, not much older that four or five, running across the street in front of our car. They were crossing the road to get to the church playground. Where is the supervision? The only adult I saw was a gentleman sound asleep on a park bench toward the back of the playground with a newspaper over his face. My immediate thought, with all the transient foot traffic through this neighborhood, that this wasn’t a safe place for children to be wondering without an adult watching.

Wait a minute! Maybe there is a “mom” standing at a kitchen window watching these children? After all, there are several homes located across the street from this playground.

Wait a minute! Remember when this was truly a dangerous place to live. NOT NOW!  There are those who would disagree….that this is still a pretty dangerous place to live.  Twenty to thirty years ago there were burned-out homes and weed-rodent-infested vacant lots. One could assume there were drugs and guns and gangs up and down these streets—thirty years ago. NOT NOW! All the houses on this part of Weadock street are occupied. Some of them are new.

Wait a minute: Families wishing for their children what all families wish—safe and secure place to live where children can run and play?

Wait a minute!   Remember when the church session had a conversation, over thirty years ago, about putting a fence around this playground? This was a short conversation. The immediate decision was made that the playground was for the entire community.   The church would be sending the wrong message to the residents of the community to fence off this playground. And yes, with regular maintenance, this playground has served the community well.

Wait a minute! The playground is free and open for anyone in the community to enjoy. Why does the church still lock all the doors?   When I was pastor of the church, doors were locked even during Sunday worship and weekly fellowship events?   I wonder if this church will ever unlock the doors of the sanctuary for people in this community to worship – just like they created an open atmosphere in a playground for children to play.[1]

Sermon by Jill Duffield

I have also been thinking about a sermon prepared by Jill Duffield for the Presbyterian Outlook based on the lectionry texts from Ephesians[2].   I wonder what makes for a “hostile” community or church?   Could it be that the neighborhood around the church I once served is seen as a “hostile” place to live? I know in the past the streets of this community were much more hostile than they are now! Jill Duffield has this to say in connection to church playgrounds and the church:

There was a church I used to drive by with some regularity that had a beautiful playground directly in front of the sanctuary. It had a sign with the name of the church attached to the high chain linked face that surrounded the playground.   The gate had a padlock. It sent a powerful message.

Just this week I received an email from my neighborhood association admonishing us to take great caution as a stranger (!) had been seen walking (!) in our neighborhood. We were urged to call the police immediately if we say someone “who just does not belong.” How, one wonders (or not), are we to determine if someone “who just does not belong” and what is the issue with walking on public streets?

Clearly, to some, my neighborhood is a hostile environment. How about our churches? Are they hostile to someone who does not dress as most do on Sunday mornings? Is a hostile to parents of children to sit still for an hour? It is hostile to those who have hearing or vision or mobility impairments? Is it hostile to those who don’t look like the majority of those gathered? Is it hostile to a same-gender couple? Is it hospital to someone of a different theological bent than our pastor or members?”

The truth needs to be heard.

 Jesus Christ puts to death hostility. Please, please preach this on Sunday. Proclaim it!

Regardless where we live, we need to find ways to open our hearts (and the doors of our churches) to all of God’s children.

My thoughts while driving by a church playground.

[1]   Perhaps the church will re-evaluate her policies on locking doors?

[2]   Presbyterian Outlook, 16th Sunday of Ordinary Time, July 19, 2015, Ephesians 2: 11-22

I recently heard the statement:  “Non-profits can do as good if not better job in doing mission as the church!”   This was true in the small urban church I served.  An older congregation doing ministry in a large building, partnering with non-profits helped the church use its large facilities in serving the community in ways church officers could never imagine!  The church couldn’t run a soup kitchen like the one that opened in the church for ten years serving 200-300 people every day.  The officers of this 100 member church couldn’t run the after-school program serving as many as 60 neighborhood children every day.  While the church could open her doors and participate with non-profits in providing these programs, the church couldn’t do these things alone.

The new reality that needs to be recognized by many churches I have encountered in my ministry:  Perhaps secular non-profits, in certain contexts, can do a better job than the church in serving the needs of people in our communities.   And if you are connected with a church with a lot of sacred space that is not being used, perhaps a non-profit would enjoy partnering with you in doing Christ’s work?   And partnering with non-profits doesn’t always have to generate income for the church!  All the programs nurtured with non-profits and the church I served were rent-free partnerships.  All we ever tried to recover were expenses.     Just blogging…..

Doors Open Wider!

The doors of Presbyterian Church, with a recent decision to allow for same sex weddings, have just been opened wider for those in the LGBT community wishing to be married.  While I join with Presbyterians from around the country celebrating our becoming a more inclusive church, we must also remember the need to be pastoral toward those in the church who, in heart-felt ways, disagree with this decision.  Let’s be honest!  Many in the church have strong feelings that this was a bad decision.

From a pastoral letter written by Rev. Jim Browne, the General Presbyter for the Presbytery of Lake Huron—the Presbytery of which I am a member:

What this means is that anyone authorized to perform a marriage and lives in a state where this is legally possible will be able to officiate at  same sex weddings as well as traditional weddings, between a man and a woman. The pastor still is vested with the authority to decide whether a particular wedding is wise and should go forward. The Session which is still given the responsibility to control the use of the building still retains the right to authorize the use of the building for a particular wedding, or to refuse it. The rights of the pastor and of the congregation, vested in the Session, will remain unchanged from before.[1]

Rev. Browne calls upon those in our beloved church to be “gentle with one another”.   I like this!  While some, like myself, want to celebrate this change in our church constitution, I also know some of my best friends at the core of their being are in disagreement with where the church when it comes to this issue of marriage.

I am proud to be in a church that wrestles with difficult questions – always putting Christ at the center of our deliberations.  We are grounded in scripture recognizing there can be varied interpretations when it comes to how God’s Word inspires and guides us in making difficult decisions–living our lives as faithful Christians.

It comes down to this for me:  The door is now open wider for those in the LGBT community who wish to join in worship in Presbyterian churches knowing they are fully included as participants in the sacred institutions, like marriage or holding ordained office–institutions and offices we hold near and dear to our hearts.

Note:  Rev. Grady Parsons, the Stated Clerk and spokesperson for the Presbyterian Church shares an excellent letter showing how decisions on the issue of the inclusion of the LGBT community has evolved since the 1970’s—a short letter for those interested in learning more about how the PCUSA came to this decision. 

http://oga.pcusa.org/section/ga/ga221/message-stated-clerk-grady-parsons-marriage/

[1]   Bi-weekly News of the Presbytery of Lake Huron, March 18, 2015

Sermon Hoarder

Now over a year into retirement (and disability) I have cleared over half of my books from my personal library.  While I still have lots of books, I am finally looking only at those volumes I most cherish.  Now I need to move to the project of clearing files filled with old sermons, worship bulletins and newsletters.  I have a hard-copy of every sermon preached going back to 1975.  Does anybody else do this?  Save all their old sermons?  Does this make me a “Sermon Hoarder”?

What hit me hard was a comment from my wife as we moved these files in order to lay new carpeting.  “If something were to happen to you, what am I going to do with all your stuff?”    This got me thinking about the fact that I rarely go into these files to read old sermons.  Why keep all this stuff?

Aha!  It’s taken some time but I am slowly realizing that my life isn’t about the boxes of all the things I save.  What do we store in our hearts and minds?  What’s truly important?  Honestly, who really cares about all my old sermons and files!

Some random thoughts as I prepare to downsize:

Through the years, when I was still an active pastor, I used to find some value in going through old sermons in searching for an answer to the question I asked from time to time:  What to preach?  Is there a chance I will find a sermon worth repeating?  Even so, I never repeated a sermon without first completely re-working it!

What about this?  Old and musty hard copies of sermons are no longer sermons!  A sermon is only a sermon on the day and hour proclaimed.  A sermon only has life for as long as it remains in the hearts and minds of those who listen for God’s Word found within my words?

I am wondering what some of your thoughts might be in reflecting on years of preaching!  And what do you do with all those old sermons?

A little secret:  Every sermon I preached after about 2002 is on my computer hard-drive.  I’m not going to toss my computer!

LENTEN POTHOLES 2015

Driving on another cold winter day, I hit another pothole and say to myself:  “Time to get my car wheels realigned”.  Then I hit another pothole, CRINGE AND CONCLUDE:  “Why bother?  I’m just going to keep hitting potholes! The car is always going to be out of alignment!  I could just wait until spring for this realignment”.   I then think about the permanent damage that could be done to my wheels and car if I don’t do some preventative maintenance in addressing this alignment issue.

Then a God moment:  Not just with my car but also in life, preventative maintenance is always a good idea.

In my personal devotions, I am beginning another Lenten journey toward the cross of Jesus.  More important this journey leads to Easter and the empty tomb and ultimately Jesus’ ascension into heaven.  In my personal journey, I need to do some preventative spiritual maintenance.  There is plenty in my life to be re-aligned with God.    Just as it took time for Jesus to travel and through Jerusalem it’s going to take time to get my life realigned with God.

And another question: What would it be like to walk in Jesus’ shoes (or sandals) traveling through Jerusalem in preparing the next five weeks leading to Palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and Easter?

My challenge right now is in identifying the potholes that throw me off in living in balance with God.  What in my life needs to be realigned with God and friends?  Where do I go for this “realignment”?  The church?  Friends?  Christ?

These are just a few questions I ask as I drive through another pothole – as I begin this 2015 Lenten journey with friends and colleagues—and my Lord.

Marcus Borg and the Bible

I was brought up to think about sacred and ancient scripture as the “inspired” Word of God.  Marcus Borg (1942-2015) has said it as clearly as any scholar when he says:

I see the Bible as a human response to God,” Borg wrote. “Rather than seeing God as Scripture’s ultimate author, I see the Bible as the response of these two ancient communities (the Hebrews and the early Christians) to their experience of God.[1]

I appreciate the brief article offered by Bill Uhrich[2] paying tribute to this scholar who looked at sacred scripture as God’s inspired Word.  Recognizing there will be those who disagree with this assessment, I need to be honest in sharing that Borg makes a log of sense.

Marcus Borg will be missed.

[1]  “Reading the Bible Again for the First Time: Taking the Bible Seriously But Not Literally.”, 2001

[2]   http://readingeagle.com/life/article/bill-uhrich-fundamentalists-take-issue-with-the-writings-of-marcus-borg

Do I Miss Preaching?

I have been asked if I miss preaching?  My honest answer:  No.  I miss worship leadership.  I miss putting together worship experiences that give glory to God along with God’s Word proclaimed.  I don’t have to be the person “proclaiming” what I believe to be God’s sacred/inspired Word.

I miss knowing that liturgy and music have made a connection with congregants as I look out upon them in worship.  A pleasant surprise has been in sitting with my wonderful wife giving glory to God in worshipping together.   This is a first for us in my being a pastor for almost forty years.

I have now been out of the pulpit for over a year.   On disability, I have health issues that make it challenging to climb steps or walk long distances.  I am not currently accepting preaching assignments.  I am now enjoying worship from the perspective of those sitting in the pew.  I enjoy singing hymns – some that I never used before in my worship planning.  I delight in seeing the small army of children coming forward for a children’s message knowing that I am not responsible for planning it.

I enjoy hearing God’s Word proclaimed.  I also find myself going to the internet to listen to worship services and sermons from colleagues who broadcast their messages often preaching on similar lectionary texts.  It’s fascinating to hear how different preachers bring different twists and turns to God’s sacred Word.

Do I miss preaching?  No.  Well maybe — sometimes! 🙂

Will I return to the pulpit?   Honestly, I don’t know.  If physically able, I can see myself filling in if a colleague is facing an emergency and needs a worship leader.  I can always find a sermon within me.  Like riding a bicycle, I don’t think I’ve forgotten why I became a “Minister of Word and Sacrament” in the first place.  While I continue to feel called to be a preacher I am still struggling with how this “call” fits in with being on disability approaching retirement.

These are my thoughts on this snowy day.  It’s now time to prepare to join with my wife for morning worship at Second Presbyterian Church in Saginaw, MI.

LIFEBOATS

These cold winter days I enjoy searching through articles and various notes I have stored on my computer.  Among these notes were those about the life and work of Harvard photographer and historian John R. Stilgoe.

I became intrigued with the story of Stilgoe’s life and work after watching an episode of Sixty Minutes back in 2003.  I then picked up one of his books,  Lifeboat:  A History of Courage, Cravenness (or Cowardice), and Survival at Sea1.  While not an easy read, this 300 page book covered the evolution of lifeboats….dealing with how they are made, rigged, captained…and how they have been used throughout the centuries.

Stilgoe recounts in his book centuries of how the image “lifeboat” has become a symbol of human optimism amidst fear and frailty.  He reflects on the fear and anguish in lives of those longing to be saved.  When it comes to boats sinking, we may think of officers saving “women and children first”.   Stilgoe’s research shows that this assertion isn’t all that accurate.  Yes there are heroes.  There are also officers who would save themselves first.  There are horrific stories about what human beings will do in dire times.  As an example, consider the sinking of the Titanic.   Unlike the 1998 movie, Stilgoe shares some of the factual history with testimonies not only about the heroism but also the violence and human turmoil of that day when the Titanic went down.  There is a story of a crew member who just about shot the radio man sending out the SOS call – only to be shot himself by another crew member…..all for his life belt……..and an interesting story about a woman who had to break up a fight among the crew on one of the lifeboats because crew members were not trained on how to use the life boats.

Metaphorically, with so many issues and struggles in the world in which we live, it’s not hard to imagine people who are suffering longing to be rescued or saved.  Some questions to ponder:  What is in our toolbox of resources when it comes to sinking boats (or sinking lives)?  Would the best or worse of you come out if you were struggling on a sinking boat?  What about those times when you have that “sinking feeling” that things just aren’t right?  Where does our faith fit in when it comes to struggles and tragedies we experience?

For me faith in God and God’s continuous presence in and around us gives me hope that the “best of me” will be used when responding to crisis.  What do you think?  I believe God brings out the good in us.  Knowing God is always with us helps take away the fears we have in working through day-to-day struggles.  Money or wealth won’t save us.  Politics, as we see in our nation right now, won’t save us.  Power and influence won’t keep us from sinking.  Is faith in God known to us through the living Christ the lifeboat that truly works – saving us even from ourselves?

On this cold winter day, imagining life filled with struggles I meditate upon scripture and the words of these hymns in my personal toolbox of resources when it comes to days when my life is sinking……

 “Jesus Calls us calls us o’er the tumult

of our life’s wild restless sea;

Day by day his sweet voice soundeth,

saying “Christian, follow me”.

And when it comes to “perils on the sea”:

“Eternal Father, strong to save,

whose arm has bound the restless wave,

who bade the mighty ocean deep;

It’s own appointed limits keep.

O hear us when we cry to thee

for those in peril on the sea.”

 And from Psalm 121:

I lift up my eyes to the hills—from where will my help come?

My help comes from the Lord, who made heaven and earth.

1.    Lifeboat, John R. Stilgoe, University of Virginia Press, 2003

The Value of a Name

I could not, for the life of me, remember his name!   I could picture him.  His name was on the tip of my tongue.  I couldn’t remember his name.  Has this ever happened to you?

It was on Sunday while watching the Bronco’s and Colts playoff game that I spent more than a few agonizing moments trying to remember the name of the great football player and former quarterback of the Denver Broncos.  This isn’t supposed to happen!   This is ridiculous!  What’s his name?

Suddenly, my wife after doing a quick Google search (she also could not come up with the name), declared:  “His name is John Elway.”    Embarrassed!  As a former Coloradoan, I can’t believe I couldn’t remember this name! When we hear the name John Elway, I think immediately of his wonderful sixteen season football career as a Bronco quarterback.  He is now working as the vice-President of operations for the Broncos…as well as numerous lucrative business ventures around Denver.  I knew this stuff.  I couldn’t remember his name!   Unfortunately and sometimes embarrassed, I experience some challenges in remembering names.  I just couldn’t come up with his name.

Why share this embarrassing story?  While John Elway is a name that has a tremendous amount of value in the football world, we each have tens of thousands of names that point to the stories of the people behind these valuable names.   Just in the books we read — think about all the names behind the stories!

I learned years ago the value of paying attention to the names of people who assist me in cashing my check or serving my meal in a resturant.   Referencing a person’s name in conversations gives this person and his or her story value.  I promise, calling a waiter or bank teller by name will almost always guarantee better service!  If nothing else the “valuing of a person” by the use of his or her name is a way of saying:  “I appreciate you and what you are doing for me”.

For those in the clergy community, the world in which I live, I point you toward a blog written by Becca Messman — “Three Habits of Highly Effective Pastors[1].  She point out this truism:  There is nothing worse than calling a person by the wrong name!

And in forgetting names we may use the excuse:  “I’m not good with names”.  This is disastrous for pastors.  Pastor’s need to remember names!  While in daily life it’s important to remember the names of people around us, for clergy it’s an important part of our “valuing” the relationship we have with others as baptized members of the body of Christ.

In my last parish I took pride in knowing the name of every church member.  I always tried to call on people with the use of their name.  I am sure it helped that this was a smaller parish and we didn’t have that many visitors.

I also learned that when we had a visitor the value of learning of his or her name as soon as possible….in then using that name the next time I saw that visitor.  With a church in an urban setting, this was vitally important when it came to learning the names of people who would come to the church asking for assisance.  The first door I could open for a visitor was the use of his or he name.

This is also true with children.  We as clergy persons need to value these children by using their names.  Children are amazed that the pastor remembers his or her name!

So are you having a hard time remembering names?   I learned early in my ministry that there is no shame in pulling out a piece of paper and writing down a name.  The use of name tags in worship is a valuable asset in helping a larger congregation become a “community” of people — each with a name!  And this important point:  The first step in recalling the story of the person behind the name is the name itself.

Just some thoughts in thinking about John Elway and another man named “Rod” who just helped me get my car serviced.

[1] http://pres-outlook.org/2015/01/three-habits-highly-effective-pastors/