A couple of weeks ago I went on an unforgettable mission trip to New Orleans and encountered a church that gave me a lot to think about.
Prince of Peace Missouri Synod Lutheran Church was once a thriving church and school. It was flooded when Hurricanes Katrina and Rita destroyed thousands of homes, businesses, and community buildings along the Gulf Coast from Texas to Alabama in 2005.
I told a story in church one Sunday. It was not just my story; it was a shared story from my family that had only been told quietly for a long time. Maybe it was a confession. After telling it I felt spent, as if something powerful had moved through me.
To be a storyteller is like having an electric current move through your body.
I ran into Ralph at the café. Ralph is a retired paper mill worker, a Vietnam vet, and a self-proclaimed “wise sage” who drives everyone in the café crazy with his incessant theological chatter. He always interrupts my sermon preparation. He wants to talk about God or Jesus or numerology or the chickens he’s raising. But most times, I come away from a conversation with him having yielded a little jewel of insight.
So, 34 couples got married in a live, mass wedding during the Grammy Awards. Queen Latifah (no, not ordained) officiated at the ceremony, against a projected image of stained glass windows. A gospel choir joined in singing behind Madonna while the couples, old and young, gay and straight, exchanged rings.
Baptism is the ritual doorway through which we enter Christian life. So I always found it strange that one of my churches had no font. They only had a small silver bowl given to them by another congregation when they were a new church start, 40 years before I arrived. They only brought it out for baptisms, so there was no visible reminder of the sacrament in the sanctuary.
An interim ministry position is a funny gig. The Interim is not called but hired. S/he is not installed, not permanent, and often not paid as much as the “permanent” (or “settled”) pastor. I knew early on that interim work is viewed as a second-tier career track when a guy at a nursing home said, “You’re a pretty good preacher. I’ll bet you could be a real minister.” I didn’t bother to tell him I’ve been a “real minister” for 25 years.
I once had occasion to meet with a potential confirmation student at a Subway restaurant. He was 6 feet tall, dressed like a punk and played in a rock band. I fed him a sandwich and tried to explain why he should invest two years of Sunday afternoons studying the art of Christian discipleship.
My father once sat me down on the couch and placed a map of Central Europe in my lap. He pointed to two major cities and said, ”We have five months to get from London to Copenhagen. You plan our route.”
I’ve written elsewhere about Springhouse Ministry, a church building shared by three congregations of different denominations in south Minneapolis. Here is a story about three congregations of different faiths that are now sharing space on Long Island.
I like to read the mission notes in our UCC/DOC Global Ministries e-mailings, and I always give special attention to those written by my seminary classmate Jeff Mensendeik, who does mission work in Japan. He was close to the situation in northern Japan during the tragic tsunami in 2011.
A church I once served was born in a cheese warehouse, grew, purchased property, built a building, grew some more, plateaued, added an addition, declined and closed—all in a 50-year timespan. Now its building sits vacant, as much a liability as an asset to its judicatory.
I called my carpenter friend Daryl when I needed some bookshelves installed on the wall of our tiny spare room. I have a collection of books that I had no room to store. I wanted the south wall of the room full of shelves, top to bottom.
Daryl came and studied the room.
“Why do you want shelves on the south wall?” he asked.
Recently, I was lucky to sit in on a meeting with a church’s governing board, their interim pastor and a church consultant. The congregation had planned to seek a settled, full time pastor. But when they began their search process, they were forced to examine their dwindling financial resources. It appeared they were going to have to make some tough choices
I know some of you have a love/hate relationship with your church buildings. Your church’s floors may have asbestos in them and the roof may leak and the sanctuary is not wheelchair accessible. Maybe you are secretly hoping for a strategically placed tornado.
Or maybe you should sell your building? Wouldn’t that make life easier?
Whenever something sad or evil happens in the world, I think of the church. I mean, that particular church on the corner, up the street, where there may be a pastor, weak or strong, and a congregation, weak or strong, a little band of pray-ers and lovers and singers and sinners.
We played “Stump the Pastor” at my church recently. Everyone wrote down a question about the bible, the church or theology, and I drew them out of two baskets—one for kids and one for adults—and tried to answer them on the spot.
Of course, we only got a few answered in the 15-minute sermon slot. The rest of the questions were left on my desk to rummage through on Tuesday morning. Some were designed to trick me (How many animals did Moses take on the ark?); some were skeptical (How many mistakes has God made?) and some were sad (If we are spirits in heaven, how will I recognize my loved ones?). And then, one question made my heart skip a beat.
At first they sounded to me like the names of medieval cricket teams, but it turns out that mendicants and anchorites were actually two different types of ancient monastics. Mendicantswere nomadic monks who never acquired property. They travelled around and lived by begging from strangers.
I casually asked a parishioner the other day how he lost his hand. I knew it happened when he was a young man, so I didn’t expect him to get emotional. But as he told the story, his demeanor began to change.
We have seen a lot of death around here lately. Last summer, our neighbor came by to tell us he was throwing a block party. Two weeks later, he had a heart attack and died. His wife threw the party anyway. We planted a tree for him in his yard and drank lemonade.