On the St. Mark

I will soon walk through the doors of St. Marks United Methodist Church one last time.  I first entered that hallowed space on the edge of New Orleans’ historic French Quarter in the spring of 2006; it was sixth months after Hurricane Katrina had wreaked havoc on the Gulf Coast, and St. Marks was in a state of disrepair.StM1

No. St. Mark’s was in a state of renewal – it’s historic, perpetual mode.

That Sunday morning, I was a visitor; a tourist on my first trip to New Orleans, there at the urging of my boss, who thought that I should spend the weekend of my extended business trip to Louisiana getting a first-hand look at what hurricane recovery looked like.

The trip to New Orleans changed my life. So did St. Marks.

I had arrived in town the previous Friday afternoon, and checked into a hotel on the edge of the French Quarter; it was a place best described at that moment as ‘creepy’.  It was an older building (not by any stretch one of the oldest, but it had seen a few years) and the entire first floor had been gutted down to the studs as part of its post-Katrina revelation. Stark, and empty, but that isn’t what made it strange. The second story of the hotel had been untouched by floodwaters, so they were open for business.

Floodwaters not an issue, but my room appeared to have been untouched by time.

The dark, wide-grained, walnut paneling, large, clunky, light fixtures and olive-green carpeting dated the room to sometime in the late 1960’s.  The old desk phone by the bed – while not as dated – was of only less ancient vintage, adorned with myriad instructions and extensions for various hotel services.  The creep factor quickly gave way to kitsch, especially considering I was staying in a hotel in a part of a city that was older than the country itself.

It fit me.

As a writer and history buff, this entire sidebar trip was one of great anticipation and opportunity – and I used my time to simply stroll, observe, and record.  I spent Friday night and Saturday traversing every street in the Quarter, stopping periodically to drink chicory coffee, and write.  Or to stop, eat and listen to some jazz, and write.

I filled a brand new, five-by-seven-inch spiral notebook I had brought with me.

My first visit was twelve years ago.

That Sunday morning found me at a small breakfast spot I had stumbled across the day before. the night before, I had checked the old hotel directory binder in my room for a local church I could attend – figuring that most any nearby church would have ample amounts of history and quirk to suit my rather eclectic faith tastes.

It was a quick thumb through, as I discovered St. Mark’s UMC was just two blocks from my hotel and had services at ten o’clock – ample time for early-riser me to hit the streets, see some sights, and get some breakfast.  Plus, it was a Methodist church, and I was a Methodist churchgoer back home in Minnesota.

And we shared a name.

After breakfast, I went back to my hotel, packed up my stuff and loaded it in my rental car, before making the short stroll to church.  It was a muggy morning, and the Quarter had an air about it; a whiff of old mixed with new.  There was the typical ‘old’ smell – earthy, damp – mixed with new: freshly cut wood, new plaster, and cement -all held together with the mortal of lemon disinfectant, a special treat laid down that morning by street sweepers washing away a night of revelry.

I arrived at the church and took in the look of the place. It was old, dating to the early 1920’s, but on the exterior, it didn’t seem that Katrina had done much damage. Above the stmark2door was an old, hand-painted sign, reading ‘ST. MARK’s the METHODIST CHURCH OF THE VIEUX CARRÉ ’ – Vieux Carré the French for ‘Old Square’.

The sign and the sentiment are still there.

Once inside, I immediately got the sense that this place was not typical, and that it was not going to be business as usual. Scaffolding along the sides of the church showed where stained glass windows, wall plaster, and the ceiling were all getting some badly needed repair.  The corners of the sanctuary had piles of materials and tools, and there was a definite vibe of renewal.

Same for the folks in the pews.

People milled about, some with cups of coffee in hand, a few were engaged in conversation, many sat silently, by themselves, and some were even sleeping in the pews. A number of those in attendance looked to be homeless – because they were; all of their worldly belongings with them in backpacks, suitcases, boxes.  Scattered here are there were a different set of folks; more neatly dressed, seemingly more middle class.  Racially, I was surprised to pretty even split, black and white.  I have lived and worked in the inner city; my first thought was that I had stumbled into some sort of homeless shelter.

But that idea was quickly overshadowed by a humbling realization; if these folks were disenfranchised from their communities or families, they certainly were not in this place, on this Sunday morning.  The conviviality was palpable, unforced.  This was an interesting place.

Piano music was playing and people were starting to find their spots.

As I accepted a bulletin from an usher and began to look for a seat, a petite, blonde woman walked up to me, excitedly welcoming me, then warmly clasping my hand and shaking it. In a southern drawl as thick as cane syrup, she thanked me for being there, before excusing herself and answering a question of the ushers had about something.

Her name was Anita Dinwiddie, and she was the pastor.

What followed was as uplifting a service as I have attended, and the quirks I anticipated were everywhere. Among the most moving was the greeting and the call to come up to the altar, and ‘grab a flower’.  Just in front of the polished wood altar railing was a small table and scattered across it were a variety of fresh-cut flowers – daisies and carnations. Without hesitation, and with piano music playing, the majority of the congregants got up from their seats, walked to the front of the church, grabbed a flower, and then went to img_20170820_110909.jpgthe altar to kneel in prayer, placing the flower on the altar in front of them.

At least, some folks laid their flowers down. Many people held on to their daisy as they prayed – some clutching the stem intently, others twirling them around absentmindedly, as they prayed, got up, and headed back to their seat, giving the next person in line their chance.

It was a fascinating and profoundly moving five minutes – always is. I had never seen anything like it before or since.

Anita later explained that the tradition pre-dated her tenure by many years, and that the premise was simple; those who felt they had nothing to bring in terms of an offering would always have something – a simple flower – they could bring to the altar.

This simple, small piece of the Sunday morning experience at St. Mark’s is one of my favorite things about the place – and one of the things I will miss the most.  And though confession isn’t necessarily a Methodist thing (in a formal sense) I have one to make: as many times as, I have seen and participated in the flower ritual, I am often getting more from watching how others – especially first-time visitors – are moved by the sight of watching people pick up their flowers, and how they handle them.

Hey, I’ve been there.

The rest of the service was standard issue, traditional Methodist; classic hymns, prayer requests, joys and concerns, sermon.  Though very little is done without some special flair or twist.  The music on any given Sunday, was provided by some wonderful musicians of varying ilk.  Often, the soloist or vocalist you were listening to from the pew would have been performing on some nearby French Quarter stage twelve-hours before.

What might have been your cover charge on Saturday night is an offering plate drop-in Sunday morning.

At the conclusion of my first Sunday there, I was startled to see that not many people were all that anxious to scoot out the door. In fact, many were coming from the back of the church to the front.

Because it was time for the weekly meal.

Each week – then and now – the church serves a meal to the homeless immediately following the service; they have it down to a well-oiled routine, and the carts are rolling out while the pastor is at the back of the church saying goodbye to those who are leaving. each week, the meal is prepared, and then served by, groups from different churches – local, regional, and otherwise.

It is an impressive and impactful undertaking.

Along with their homeless ministry, St, Marks also has a strong, long-standing bond with the LGBTQ community. Back in 1973, an arsonist set fire to a well-known gay bar in the Quarter, and thirty-two people died.  Some of the victims went unidentified, and bodies were not claimed by families.  St. Mark’s was the only church that would allow memorial services and funerals for the victims; this church is not new to the ideas of diversity and social justice.  In the 1960s, during the turmoil of desegregation, the pastor of St. Marks held integrated services, and sent his children to help integrate a local school.

Service to all and inclusion have deep roots here.

Obviously, that first, not-at-all random (thanks, G-d) visit to St. Mark’s was not my last. Two years later, my family and I moved to New Orleans to help with the post-Katrina rebuild, and I became a semi-regular St. Mark’s attendee. The place – and the people – have made an extraordinary impact on me. Some of the deepest, most meaningful friendships I have made in my time in New Orleans began at St, Mark’s; some of the most meaningful and delightful discussions on faith I have ever been involved with came during St. Mark’s ‘disorganized religion’ sessions – for years held weekly, on Tuesday nights, at a local bar.

Pastor Dinwiddie, now retired and living in Texas, is now simply my friend, Anita.

My friends Brett, Jerry, Karl, Ed, Michael, Reita, Noble, and Corey (who took over for the retired Anita) – all welcomed me with warmth, and good humor, strong counsel.

It is a long list of things to be grateful for in my connections with St. Mark’s UMC; twelve years is the longest stretch I have ever spent with a single congregation.  I have seen a lot of people come and go, heard wonderful sermons and fabulous music.  I have signed many of the sympathy cards the church puts in with the guest register, then sends to victims of violence around the community.

I have learned a lot – about myself, about others, about life.  St. Mark’s is a cool place, and one that I will deeply miss.

Every Sunday service at St. Mark’s closes with a group sing; first run through with accompaniment, the second done a Capella, as everyone looks around the congregation and makes eye contact with someone else – bringing an entirely different perspective to the lyrics we sing; rinse-and-repeat. Incredibly cleansing:

Shalom to you now, shalom my friend!
May G-d’s full mercy, bless you my friend!
In all your living, and through your loving,
Christ be your shalom,
Christ be your shalom.

Backatcha, my St. Mark’s friends.  Backatcha always.

Today is my last visit to St. Mark’s.  I don’t know that I’ll ever feel as at home in a church.

And I am very okay with that.

 

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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.

Faith, law and compassion

This past Sunday I attended services at one of my favorite, regular church stops – a small United Methodist outpost in the French Quarter of New Orleans. The woman who gave the morning’s welcome was a lay person, not overly polished but very compelling as she relayed a personal story from the past week.

The middle-aged woman had been reading a devotional that asked her (I paraphrase) ‘what blessing would be of most use to (her) at this moment.’ She told the congregation her immediate response was to win the lottery, so she could set up a charitable foundation with the first grant going to the church.

She went on to say how she then posed the same question from the devotional to other family members, and that they gave roughly the same response as she had, until she asked her younger daughter. The daughter has struggled at times with being bullied, and other issues, and simply said, “Mom, the greatest blessing for me would be that people could just be nice to each other.” The woman then spoke about how her daughter’s answer made her proud, and how she began to rethink her own answer a bit.

Then she spoke of the rest of her week, and a real-life blessing: the announcement of the SCOTUS decision upholding the Affordable Care Act.

Her story was simple, and compelling; the ACA left standing the way it was meant that three of her children, all on their own but not making a lot of money, could now keep their affordable health care. The emotion in her voice was palpable as she related what a comfort that news was to both she and her husband, let alone the children. A simple court decision with a huge impact, upholding a law that actually plays to the narrative of America being a compassionate nation. To me it seems legally logical and socially appropriate, helping millions who could truly use it – what fair, just laws should ideally strive for. I could only imagine how many households across the country had experienced similar relief.

And yet, many of my fellow Christians remain adamantly opposed to the ACA.

The woman’s story continued with a retelling of how her excitement was compounded later in the week by the second SCOTUS ruling striking down prohibitions on gay marriage. To hear the woman speak, it didn’t seem as if this particular ruling had a deeply personal impact on her, but that she was elated “for friends, for all of us.” It was, she noted, a ‘wonderful week.’

One might say extraordinary.

Many of my fellow Christians remain adamantly opposed to this second decision, and the idea of gay marriage itself, but on this issue the Chicken Little Faithful approach (proclaiming churches will be sued, forced to do things against their beliefs) goes overboard. Truth is, every Christian denomination I have ever been around has their own will/won’t marry someone in their church reasoning, and certain things that are/are not acceptable practice in that particular congregation. They have always, and will remain free to exercise those beliefs.

Fact: the Supreme Court is not now, nor have they ever been in charge of, ruling on G-d’s law. SCOTUS rules on American civil law – the U.S. Constitution. The key part of both those entities in the ‘U.S’ for United States. We are a pluralistic nation: different states, different peoples, different ideas, one country, one set of laws. Not biblical law, not Sharia law, not Talmudic law.

American civil law. The U.S. constitution.

It is striking to me that in both the case of the ACA and marriage ruling, the laws being dealt with are based in large part on not just law, but concern and consideration for all American citizens. As Christians, it seems to me that we should be rejoicing in the (sadly rare) convergence of American civil law and compassion.

Jesus calls us to be compassionate.

When discussing faith, people will sometimes get frustrated with me, as I don’t ‘cherry pick’ verses to back up my point of view, as I believe it is far too easy to take most any singular line or two of the Bible and use it in a way that fits some point we as humans are trying to make. This is mostly because people will take singular verses out of any reasonable context: the speaker, the setting, the situation at hand. Part of that is the discomfort with a lack of context is the English teacher part of me, but it is also something that disturbs me more the older and deeper into my faith I get.

My challenge to you as a Christian: grab your Bible and find a favorite verse – look for the highlighting and underlining, the pages you dog-eared. Look at where that verse lies in the chapter it is from, and see if reading the entire chapter, or passage, doesn’t at the very least give you a different perspective on what the verse you like really Finch 06 30 15says or means. Try it for three or four more verses.

You may be more than a little surprised.

Personally, I cannot boil my faith down to a solitary verse; I could when I was younger, not so much now. For the record, and for example, I try to use the book of Matthew as a life roadmap – the whole book, not just a this-verse-to-this-verse excerpt. You have to read the whole thing to get my point; there is so much more to Matthew than ‘feed my sheep.’

Hence my consternation at stray lines from the Bible used to condemn or condone much of anything. Especially the past week or so. There are a lot of strange things being said these days in the name of Christianity.

In reading and hearing all the vitriol spewed toward recent court rulings by prominent and not-so-prominent Christians, I am disquieted. As Christians, we are called to be compassionate – not called to be judgmental – that is not our job. I am trying to follow my own advice and simply point out a few things that disturb me about much of the Christian rhetoric surrounding the past week.

While not biblical, the seven deadly sins are certainly part of the Christian canon, and there are numerous takes on them, with some differences to be sure, but also with some decidedly pointed overlaps.

In Proverbs, King Solomon takes his crack at numbering and classifying sins; among the two that stand out as applicable to much of the faith-based discourse on SCOTUS and the law, Solomon’s admonitions against ‘a lying tongue’ and ‘Him that soweth discord among brethren.’ The latter is pretty obvious, as any quick perusal of a Facebook wall or various blogs will show. The former? All the nonsense about churches being forced to participate in things they don’t believe in. Again, G-d’s law, as opposed to American civil law. A number of outright lies are being told in the name of Christianity. The recent arguments from both public figures and private citizens calling themselves Christian seem rooted in one or more of the sins greed, wrath, and pride.

Not Gay pride, but Biblical, sinful pride.

Pride (hubris) as a sin is ‘believing that one is essentially better than others, failing to acknowledge the accomplishments of others, excessive admiration of personal self.’ Want to rant and rave about how you, as a Christian, are being persecuted by recent SCOTUS actions?  Think about where your pride comes into play in your viewpoint more than a specific Bible verse does. Present yourself as being above others, proclaim as a public official that you will not follow the law of the land because it is ‘against your faith’ and we can talk about where your pride fits in. Much the same goes for greed; think about what is it that makes you want to deny to others (civil rights, health care) things that you may have without question. What is it that makes you want to tell others ‘no’ besides greed. Wrath? It is hard to not see anger and rage in much of the discourse about these (and most other social and political issues). Jesus does not call us to wrath.

He calls us to compassion, with little equivocation room.

To be abundantly clear, my faith drives my political beliefs – not vice versa, and while last week’s SCOTUS rulings may not affect me directly, they did have a powerful impact on many people I know and love. It was a good week, topped off by another extraordinary event: hearing our President sing my favorite hymn at a funeral service. It was a quite a topper to a five-day stretch.

Oh, and sorry to disappoint my more conservative Christian friends here; while Mr. Obama is our president, his singing from a pulpit was not a matter of an endorsement of faith over and above anything or anyone else, he was simply exercising his faith, just in a very public setting. His personal prerogative, not a point of law.

Amazing grace, indeed.

No Way in These Mangers

It’s Christmas Eve, and I am preplexed.

We arrived yesterday in our ancestral home state of Minnesota after a twenty-four hour drive from our current home in New Orleans to see our new grandson; an appropriate meatphor for the season.

Forgoing the Christmas music on CD that had been sountracking the journey, the last hour or so of the drive allowed me to tune in local radio where I caught this rather surprising story, and really had time to think about it in all its absurdity. The excerpts below are from the USAToday story that was being discussed:

“Because Christmas falls on Sunday this year, some churches are opting to close that day so that families can spend the morning together at home.”

My reflexive response was ‘well, that can’t be more than a few churches.’

“…Among the nation’s top 20 largest Protestant churches — as ranked by Outreach Magazine — three will be closed on Christmas, and 10 will be having only one service, The Tennessean reports…”

The story continues…

“Life Research, based in Nashville, says its national survey of Protestant churches found that 91% would hold at least one service Christmas morning, while about 9% will not worship on Sunday at all. Some plan Christmas Eve services instead.”

‘Some plan Christmas Eve services instead’
‘9% will not worship on Sunday at all’

“’Instead?’ ‘Nearly 1-in10 churches will be closed because Christmas is on a Sunday?’ Must be some rationale for all of this” thought I.

There is…if you take the ‘rational’ part of ‘rationale’:

“In Murfreesboro, Tenn., the Rev. Brady Cooper of New Vision Baptist Church notes that it takes 150 volunteers to staff a single service at the megachurch, so he is opting to run five services on Christmas Eve instead, The Tennessean reports.

“Asking them to be there all day Christmas Eve and most of the day on Christmas is hard,” Cooper says. “Our staff is very thankful to have the chance to be home with their family.”

Note to Rev. Cooper and other church ‘leaders’:  if you don’t like working on holidays, maybe you shouldn’t choose ministry as a career.

Two primary thoughts come to mind as I read this story, and similar accounts from around the country. (There are a ton; simply go to Google and do a search)

My first thought is, this all strikes me as terribly wrong and short sighted on so many levels.

Stories abound this time of year about how stressful the holidays can be for people, especially those who are at odds with family, who feel disconnected, or who have suffered a loss and cannot find joy in the season – the list goes on.

Many of these people count on their ‘church family’ during this time of year more than any other – I have seen it in every church I have been a part of, in every place I have lived.

“Sorry, we’re closed today. Come back next week” doesn’t cut it.

Secondly, I thought back to all of the emails and Facebook posts I have received from well-meaning fellow Christians over the past few weeks bemoaning a supposed ‘secular attack’ on Christmas.I don’t buy into the ‘attack’ theory; I think it’s more a knee-jerk reaction to specific incidents and speaks more to people’s lack of confidence in their own faith more than it does to people outside the faith attacking it. Plus its just fun for some folks to want to rile up others in the name of their faith. Thats an entirely different post.

I think as Christians, we need to look at ourselves long and hard  before we started blame the ‘secular world’ for our shortcomings as a church.

This story only served to confirm both of those beliefs.

But, hey! Not all the churches who will be hanging the ‘CLOSED’ sign this Sunday will leave their congregations high and dry…

“In Colorado, The Longmont Times Call reports that Vinelife Church is offering families devotion packets to have a “church experience” in their homes on Christmas, according to executive pastor Bob Young. Each packet includes a written message from the senior pastor, a CD of Christmas hymns and a suggestion for how to weave the spiritual side of Christmas throughout the day, Young tells the newspaper.”

As a high school English teacher, I am quite familiar with issuing homework, the concepts behind it, and the mixed end-results thereof.

Hey, pastor – will there be a quiz when everyone gets back to class?

I’m not impressed.

Then again, maybe I am looking at this all wrong. This churches-not-being-open-on-Christmas concept might just be the ultimate in teaching from the pulpit.

Just as Mary and Joseph maybe a lot of disenfranchised Christians who are unable to find their own ‘room at the inn’ on Christmas will keep looking, maybe finding a humble stable of their own somewhere else, where they can find some real joy and peace in the real meaning of Christmas.

Stepping in dogma

Faith is ego

True, deep, abiding
exclusionary faith
is your ego run amok

Blind faith is
egomaniacal, contrary
to belief , less about
submission, more
simple self-absorption
cum-righteousness

Believing is good.

Absolute certainty,
unfortunately,
is all about you

No Checks

Life is not
a barter transaction

it is strictly
cash-and-carry as
credit and debit cards
are always denied

The only lay-away plan
is at the check-out line –

sort of a ‘burst-balloon’
payment.

Life is a mortgage;
variable rates of interest,
and only the holder
of the note can accurately
compute the amortization.

Musty charts

Maps show the way;
mine rarely leave
the glove compartment

Life is not managed
by variably sized lines –
contrived cartographic
crossroads with
creases

Forks in the road
are taken, crucial
junctions managed by
instinct, heads or tails.

Seldom do I consult
a compass, even going
some other way on rare
occasions that I have –
just because!

Left to my own instincts
I usually find my way
quite nicely; always have.
Lost, found, lost, found,
found, lost…wandering,
never aimlessly

The journey continues.
It’s how I roll.

Pious gourmand

God, incarnate –
chili con carne?

Does God enjoy
ethnic foods?

The recipe on the
bag of beans brags
‘heavenly chili’

so naturally,
I question.