Spiritual roadie

Traveling solo for an extended period is always a bit weird; being away from my wife, sons, and dogs – my own bed. This summer found me roaming from my current base of New Orleans back to my hometown stomping grounds of the Twin Cities, as I was helping my mother get situated in a new living arrangement, and I had a lot going on. Definitely a working trip for me – six very full weeks’ worth of work

Not that there weren’t some advantages.

After eight years in the southern climes, one thing I love about the Midwest in the summer is sleeping with the windows open. Fresh air, when you can’t get it regularly, especially at night, is a true joy. Not having to work around the schedule of others made the myriad of things I pizzaneeded to accomplish a ‘my schedule, my call’ kind of deal. Same with eating. I probably had more pizza than I should have, and got to experiment with different frozen varieties while ordering a few times too many from a favorite place. There is also the fact that you never have to negotiate custody of the TV remote – which was primarily key for having as much baseball on as possible, especially my hometown Twins.

Flying solo also allowed me some Sunday flexibility in going to church – so I basically went on tour this summer: two states, four cities, six churches, one nursing home chapel. Save the chapel and two of the churches, were I visited a former pastor and his family in one case, our niece in another, I had some personal/historic ties to all the others.

Full disclosure: my list includes both New Orleans churches that I attend, and I hit them on stmark2successive Sundays before leaving town; plus, one of the Minneapolis churches on my list I made it to twice, the second go-around by personal invite from one of the pastors, our niece, who wanted me to hear her preach one Sunday. Definitely one of the highlights of my tour…

Lollapewlooza ’16.

I figure every decent band tour has a name, so that’s what I came up with: Mark’s Lollapewlooza tour. Catchy, right? I’m considering having a shirt made, though no physical Lollapewlooza 16souvenir is really needed. Barnstorming a variety of different churches helped me cope with all the craziness I was dealing with, but it also allowed me some much-needed perspective on where I’ve been, where I am, where I am headed spiritually.

My on-the-road Sundays were truly Sabbath days, for the most part. I was able to go to church somewhere in the morning, taking the afternoon to wind down and regroup a bit with a leisurely lunch and some Twins baseball, pay a visit to my mom, come back, have some dinner, and catch some Sunday night baseball. (The only real glitch there was when the Yankees were on ESPN. I don’t want to watch the damn Yankees. Ever.) I suppose I could add CHS Field to my Lollapewlooza list, as I spent a glorious Wednesday even there watching the St. Paul Saints play, but that is another story entirely.

One thing Lollapewlooza really wasn’t was nostalgic.

Even though my family and I once attended Park Avenue UMC in south Minneapolis, my visit to their ‘early riser service’ held no wistfulness. The music was great, the lay sermon was spot on, and it was nice to just see the place. I popped in, listened, contemplated, headed out to my second stop for the day, Minnehaha Communion Lutheran (MCLC, for short) just a couple of physical miles away but light years from Park Avenue in tone and style. That is not a judgement on my part. The two congregations both have a strong presence in their respective neighborhoods, but vastly different demographics and approaches to service. As it should be.

I enjoyed my visit to MCLC, and upon arrival, I was immediately met an old friend, who was passing out bulletins and had recognized me when she saw me drive up. We got to chat a bit both before and after the service, and she brought me up to date on who was still around – a lengthier list than I might have thought. All good. She also introduced me to one of the current pastors, and I was able to strike up an interesting conversation with a current board member, and he seemed to enjoy my historical take on the place – a perspective that is rather unique.

I chaired the committee that created Minnehaha Communion, back in 1994.

At the time, I was a young, brash thirty-something congregational president of Holy old HCLCCommunion Lutheran Church; a typical for the time aging (demographically and physically) financially struggling, old-school congregation. Roughly a mile-and-a-half to our south was Minnehaha Lutheran, whose situation mirrored ours. The decision to merge started out casually, then became real very quickly. I was elected as chair of the merger committee for two very obvious reasons: nobody else wanted to touch the job with a ten-foot-pole, and there were movers-and-shakers who felt I was young and malleable enough to be able to be manipulated. The former is indisputable; the latter was quashed right away, as I was young, astute, and headstrong – plus, our Holy Communion congregation was made up largely of elderly, savvy, take-no-prisoners women to whom I was a communal grandson.

The oldsters had my back.

To the amazement of everyone from the synod bishop on down, we completed the merger process (including selling the Holy Communion building to a new, just starting out congregation) in just a year – that was twenty-two years ago.

Fast-forward to Lollapewlooza ’16 and MCLC is now a healthy, vibrant member of their Longfellow neighborhood, having absorbed another struggling Lutheran church into their fold about ten years ago. I sat there in a pew at MCLC and couldn’t help but notice the large banner IMG_20160626_105432on one wall, noting the names of the two original churches, and their dates of operation, and the date of the new ‘Minnehaha Communion Lutheran Church EST. 1994.’

I felt a reasonable sense of pride in that, and not a little astonishment that the place was going strong. Pretty cool, though I will admit to a bit of angst on one point: the name. From the get-go, I thought we should go with an entirely new name for the merged entity, but that was not going to fly. And Minnehaha Communion was the least clunky combination we could come up with. One of the only battles I lost, but hey, won the war and here MCLC still stands.

The politics and mental gymnastics of pulling off the merger were draining, and after we got the job done, I had to step away for a while. That was when my wife and I started attending Park Avenue UMC – mostly as a compromise choice, as the first few years of our marriage we had been in a bit of flux, she coming from a Baptist background, me being Mr. Lutheran. In the end it all worked out for the best. So that Sunday morning was less a trip down memory lane, more a touching-base with some of my faith roots.

Gotta know where you’ve been to understand where you are.

Mill City Church is a growing congregation based in a north Minneapolis school building. They are a young, extremely active in their neighborhood, and very contemporary in mood and style.

Did I mention they were young? Not just the congregants, but the staff, of which my niece Anne IMG_20160612_110300is a part of, as the youth pastor. My first Sunday in town, I stopped in for the service unannounced and surprised her afterward. Later that week, she called and asked if I could be in attendance on June the nineteenth, as she was preaching. So that is what I did. She was wonderful. It was a personal, emotional, and exhilarating sermon.

I was drained. Fortunately, the Twins were on that afternoon, and smacked the Yankees around, 7-1. kepler-homerun-fuehrt-twins-zu-krimi-sieg-image_620x349The game and the pizza were great, then I took a nap, with the patio door open. That was about as good a Sabbath as I could conjure up.

Isanti, Minnesota is about a forty-five-minute drive from my mother’s place in suburban north Minneapolis. I made the jaunt up that way on Fourth of July weekend to visit the pastor and his family, who were our pastoral family in the small town in rural Minnesota which we lived before moving to New Orleans. A few months after my family and I left town, Jim took a new call to plant Spirit River UMC in a rapidly growing (“Are we rural or are we urban?”) area that has a lot of challenges – many related to changing demographics and growth.  We all share the ‘moving on’ experience. A few years after forming, they purchased a defunct banquet center to house spiritrivertheir congregation and outreach. It is a different worship experience to be sure: people sit at large, round tables, in comfortable banquet chairs.

Spirit River reminds me that churches are not buildings. Hope Christian Church, my non-denominational hang out in New Orleans, is housed in what used to be a theatre, in a large, century-old warehouse shared with a Hopeused furniture store and a t-shirt shop I would describe both Hope and Spirit River as funky and functional, and both are very contemporary in their respective worship styles.

The weekend I visited pastor Jim and his daughter, the congregation was having their newly-traditional, most-of-the-congregation-is-gone-for-the-holiday hymn sing; right up my alley, as while I don’t have a problem with contemporary services, and am not wedded to liturgical certainty, modern praise and worship music is not at all my thing. Give me ‘How Great Thou Art’ and ‘Amazing Grace’ on alternating Sundays, and HowGreatThouArtI’d be good. Maybe something from the soundtrack of ‘Godspell’. So my timing to go to Isanti was perfect, and after church I went to lunch with Jim and his daughter Stephanie, and got to listen to the Twins on the radio driving back to suburbia.

It was a satisfying final stop on Lollapewlooza ’16.

What have I learned from the spiritual side of my road trip summer? Not a whole lot of new insights, but a lot of reminders of how faith can be a burden lifter, mind clearer, refocusing tool. That seems pretty basic, but we frequently lose sight of that; I think sometimes doing the same thing in the same way every Sunday, faith becomes rote and oftentimes ineffectual.

I admit that there were a few Sunday mornings this summer where going anywhere was not high on my list at all, but knowing I had limited opportunities to do some things I wanted to do, I just did them. I am glad that I did. Glad I saw the folks that I did, fortunate to have heard the messages they had for me – both congregationally and personally.

This summer also helped me reconfirm what I do and don’t like in a worship service, and that I am something of an anomaly in that I appreciate and enjoy a good, spontaneous, free-flowing contemporary church service, doing so with older music (hymns, seventies folk, you know – united-methodist-hymnalgood stuff with high lyrical quality) would be my ideal – even by a funky, electric house band. That hybrid is hard to find consistently, so I go with what I have at hand. I also realized that while the off-beat (theatres, banquet centers, nursing home chapels, public school auditoriums) have their own Lutheran BOWquirky charm that can get you to think differently about the worship experience and the place in a community of the church overall, sometimes plopping your keister into a good old-fashioned, varnished, walnut pew (St. Marks, MCLC, Park Avenue) and hearing someone crank up a grand piano or an organ touches the soul a whole lot differently.

I discovered that the roots of my faith run deep and are intertwined. I left Minnesota and IMG_20160731_122320headed back to New Orleans, tired and unsettled, as I didn’t get done nearly as much as I thought I should have, but in reality, got more done than I should have logically been able to accomplish. Spiritually, I headed south feeling refreshed.

There is a lollapewlooza to be said for that.

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