Many of us might assume that a church with only 32 members automatically qualifies as a “struggling church,” or even a dying church. But in the case of St. Mark’s Episcopal Church in Keansburg, New Jersey, many of us would be wrong.
Recently I visited a nearby country church with a tumultuous history. Built in a berg called Klondike, it was originally a Catholic church. In the ’90s, the building was hit by lightning. The volunteer fire department bravely climbed up into the attic and put the fire out, at some risk to their own lives. Repairs were made and the church went on.
But a few years later, in 2005, the diocese closed the church, and its members migrated to another nearby parish.
I started singing in church choirs when I was a teenager. There I learned to read music and find acceptance among the grown up singers. It was my church’s choir director who helped me find my spiritual voice again after a car accident that fractured my larynx. I went on to study vocal music, compose hymn lyrics and sing in choirs at my college, seminary and several churches over the years.
There is a special kind of relationship that forms among choir members. Something about those rehearsals, with their jokes, irritations and prayer rituals, creates a spiritual bond that can’t be replicated anywhere else.
I had a massage from an excellent massage therapist recently, and discovered my body is full of knots. What was supposed to be a relaxing experience became a confrontation with unaddressed pain, as I discovered that I am in pretty bad shape.
Hope is the name of one of the waitresses at my favorite café. She waits tables with eager determination and a bird-like alertness as she darts around the place making sure everyone is happy and well-fed. She always seems cheerful, with her sing-songy voice and a tendency to call everyone “Honey”.
Years ago, on a Holy Land tour, I visited the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, considered by some Christians to be the site of Jesus’ crucifixion and burial. I went back a few days later to a Sunday worship service of the Syrian Orthodox Church, and found it was conducted in a small alcove of the church for an ethnic Syrian congregation of about 50 people.
My daughter has a pet plant, Vivaldi. He’s a succulent, and a nice, bushy one, too. But it wasn’t always that way for Vivaldi. When she first brought him home from the nursery, she was given special soil and instructions to “be careful not to overwater a succulent.”
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.