Two church members came in to talk to me on the same day. The first said the church had betrayed her, limited her, injured her. She described the church as indifferent, cowardly and sick. The second member said the same church was her lifeline and her salvation, her family and her divine appointment.
Here in America, our family lives present a strange paradox. We often wish that our families would function in an emotionally healthy way and look something like the family on Leave It to Beaver. Yet it’s normal for a family to be dysfunctional and fractured. There’s our ideal of family, and then there’s the reality.
It’s always wonderful when a new family joins our church. It’s easy for the congregation to feel that it’s fulfilling its calling, and easy for me to think that I’m being a good pastor. Of course, people also leave churches. I confess that over the years there have been a few people whose departure was a relief to me, but for the most part it is very sad when someone leaves our church, particularly since we are a small congregation, and every person’s absence is noted and deeply felt.
When I began my ministry at Church of the Redeemer, I worried each Sunday that the choir would outnumber the congregation. Everybody knew we had to grow. “We have to grow, you know,” they’d say, with all the enthusiasm of a person scheduling a dental appointment. “We need to attract new members and change,” they would say.
When we moved to New York, my husband, Chris, picked a corner of the city to own. The Soldiers and Sailors Monument, which commemorates those who died in the American Civil War, is a templelike structure surrounded by formal paved terraces. It’s also a hangout for vagrants and skateboarding teens. Broken bottles, crack vials and newspapers routinely settle into its nooks and crannies.
Many preachers, facing the summer lectionary in Year B, ask why there are five weeks of John 6. The simplest answer is that the first draft of this three-year lectionary was designed by Roman Catholics, who treasure this chapter and enact it in their daily Eucharist. Subsequent revisions of the lectionary sought to keep at least the Gospel readings untouched.
The events of the last two years have been humbling—even for New Yorkers, a breed not easily humbled. When I first moved to Manhattan, I was often startled when someone offered a complimentary comment about another person, saying that he or she was “really smart.” The pride that went before the particular New York fall was, more than any other human frailty, our peculiar brash pride in putative cleverness, savvy and smarts. Now there is no escaping the embarrassing fact that a lot of very smart people in New York never saw the present economic crisis coming, and that many of those smart people had been participating in the foolish decisions that contributed to it.
Like most pastors, I claim that the face-to-face meeting is the best way to do the ministry of the church; also like most pastors, I spend an enormous amount of time reading and composing e-mails. I am driven not so much by my own schedule or preferences as by those of my church members. Many of them use e-mail all day long and expect the church to do the same. If I want to keep up, I have to keep typing.
If it is a little difficult to find your way into Holy Nativity Episcopal Church in the Westchester neighborhood of Los Angeles, it isn’t because there are too few doors, but because there are so many.
In the fall of 2006, when Lake Avenue Baptist Church in Rochester, New York, began welcoming refugees from Burma, we had no idea what we were getting into. In the spring of 2007 there were 30 refugees from Burma in Rochester; by 2007 there were 200, and by now there are almost 400, with many more expected. Rochester is a microcosm of what is happening quietly across this continent and in many other nations.