28 October 2012

We"re Off To See The Wizard...

Blog Friends,

I rarely post 'work product' as lawyers call it.  That's because all my sermons are for my church - the people and the community there.  But because I can link this page to my church FB page and want to get the text out and around, this was the best way to do it.  Do read.  It may have value those beyond Fountain Street Church.  You tell me.

"We’re Off to See the Wizard"    28 October 2012

"The road to the City of Emeralds is paved with yellow brick," said the Witch, "so you cannot miss it. When you get to Oz do not be afraid of him, but tell your story and ask him to help you".

“The Scarecrow was now the ruler of the Emerald City, and although he was not a Wizard the people were proud of him. "For," they said, "there is not another city in all the world that is ruled by a stuffed man." And, so far as they knew, they were quite right.
"My people have been wearing green glasses on their eyes for so long that most of them think this really is an Emerald City."

"Oh, no, my dear; I'm really a very good man, but I'm a very bad Wizard, I must admit."
“As a matter of fact, we are none of us above criticism; so let us bear with each other's faults.”  ― L. Frank Baum, The Marvelous Land of Oz

Cut the rose bushes back yesterday, and asparagus.  Very calming.  I needed that because it was a full week – lots of things to do and just as much this coming week.  People talk about balance, but I think it is actually poise we want – which is not stillness but readiness.  “I Wanna be Ready” says an old spiritual.  Isn’t that every prayer, every hope?  “I Wanna Be Ready” this morning.  May these words…
This getup is how I finished my long walk across England – hiking boots, khaki pants, t shirt, fleece, raincoat, backpack and walking stick – this very stuff with one important exception.  If you recall, I spent many hours walking through very wet, very muddy, very well fertilized fields.  That meant my feet and socks and pant legs got very wet and dirty every day.  Every night, therefore, I rinsed out my socks and the bottom of my pants and hung them over a radiator to dry.  My last day took me from the city of Carlisle to the coastal town of Bowness-On-Solway, the bay that leads to the Irish Sea.  Like my first day, it was a largely flat walk.  And truth to tell, having heard of dreadful mud and muck from those coming the other direction, I cheated a bit and walked roads more than fields.
The first ten miles were misty, but forecasts predicted severe rains.  I paused at the village of Burgh-by- Sands where a funeral was underway in St. Michael’s church.  The church is built with stone from Hadrian’s Wall, the last remnants of the wall I would see.  A plaque to Edward I, Hammer of the Scots, told me that he lay in the church after dying in a nearby field preparing for another battle.  I decided to find this monument, and walked about a kilometer north, past a genuine thatched cottage and a barn from which the strong wind had torn the roof.  The monument, a modest stone pillar, appeared on the horizon, surrounded by sheep.  So did the road to it, which was inundated.  I turned back. 
Eight miles to go, I started across a long flat tidal basin that is often flooded when the tide comes in.  It was low for me.  One village and then another; four miles to go and it was only lunchtime.  Two hikers going the opposite way were sitting down for lunch.  I kept walking, sensing the rain on the way.
It came.  A squall, a gale, a storm, a deluge, came upon me after the second village.  Being flat there was no break against the northeast wind.  Rain flung itself at me, soaking my pants until they clung to my legs.  Looking down I saw little puffs of foam at the knee.  Residual soap suds churned up by the agitation of the storm.  The rain filled my socks and shoes.  I closed the hood against the wind, peering out the narrowed front.  A local bus sped by and threw an extra helping of water on me. 
I reached Bowness.  A little sign directed me to the official end point – a gazebo near the beach.  Tiny, a sea bleached shell of a place with a well soaked map on the wall, I stood there alone and dripping at the end of my journey.  A pair of fuzzy photos are all I have to prove it, and then I squished my way down the road to my lodging.  In the morning I left the pants in the trash, a sacrificial gift to the roman gods perhaps.
This month I have braided four stories together – my own pilgrim walk across England, the journey of liberal religion in general, our particular church to liberal religion, and the fable of Oz.  Those who know of Oz, know that the end there is anticlimactic, too.  Both the book and the movie reveal a wizard who was far less than magical, something of a sham.  In the movie, the real person is hidden behind a curtain and is mistakenly revealed. 
Liberal religion is all about pulling back curtains.  In the 18th century, the curtain of scholarship revealed a Bible that was not uniform or consistent.  In the 19th century history and science revealed a world was older and more complicated than the Bible said.  This church followed that path, eagerly I should add, confident that knowledge could only do good for religion.  While the jury is out on that assumption, we remain convinced that truth is better than falsehood even if the truth reveals a man instead of a wizard.
The word revelation, so important to religion, is really quite simple.  It means to ‘remove the veil’ or curtain.  Christianity calls the Bible a revelation, because it reveals knowledge that is otherwise hidden from view.  When it turned out that the Bible was itself a curtain, science became the revelation, an irony that religious liberals feel all the time and which many devout utterly deny.  We all say we want the truth, but what we really want is to have our own idea of the truth confirmed. 

Real revelation, something that takes the curtain down, is terrifying.  The fear of the fundamentalist is real and profound for if their souls stand upon sand they will fall and drown.  I understand this fear quite literally.  Years ago, by the sea, with my young son in arms, we stood in wait deep water and let the waters splash over us.  The waves were warm and fun.  Then a large wave came and it knocked me over.  My feet lost their grip, we went under water, my son’s legs let go of my waist and one hand only held as the water tried to tear us apart.  I truly knew that if he let go he might die.  Four or five terrible seconds passed.  I planted my knees in the sand between waves and pulled my son back.  Snot ran from our noses, and the lifeguard just 20 feet away was on his feet.  I know fear. 
True revelation can drown your faith.  Some never go to that shore again, knowing how unreliable the sands can be and how dangerous the waters are.  But we need the shore –the places where knowledge and faith meet.  This is where life arises, as it did billions of years ago when somehow the life of sea crept onto the land.  Every church is a shore place, standing at the confluence of knowledge and belief.  What makes us different is that we know we stand on sand not rock.  That’s why we are willing to adapt, to move, to change as the shore itself changes. 
Now I am going to apply this idea in practical terms.  Our church faces changes because the shores of life are changing.  Among them is a decline in regular church attendance and membership.  Another is the rise of non-religious behavior and identity.  Two generations ago average attendance used to be around 40% of the population.  Today it is somewhere around 24%.  Two generations ago the number of non-religious people was well below ten percent, now it is nearly 20-%.  Not only are fewer people attending church, a smaller portion connect to a church at all.  The American culture of church – belonging and going – is no longer strong.  No wonder churches are trying so hard to grow; the tail wind that drove people to church has stopped.  Us included. 
Now, we could have made growth our number one goal, but as some members observed, growth for itself rarely succeeds.  It must be for a larger end or purpose.  That’s when the new strategic goals became obvious.  - We educate people differently than other churches.  This is a gift we have.  Let’s do it more and better.  - We believe in and practice in spiritual diversity.  Let’s do racial and human diversity as well.  - Our faith is one made of deeds not creeds.  Let’s live that in the wider world.  If we do these things, we will succeed no matter how much or little we grow in numbers or members or dollars.  Our faith and values will call those who share our vision to join us. 
To take our gift for education to the next level, we need our new education minister to be devoted to that work.  Our previous clergyperson, Matthew Cockrum, was divided between education and pastoral care.  The next one will be all about education.  That means increasing pastoral care staffing.  We will do that this year, if we have your financial support. 

In addition, we want to improve our audio and visual capacity in the church so that classes of all kinds can use modern technology, so people all over the church house can be part of worship. This includes making our entire facility wifi enabled.  If we get your financial support.

Our outreach ministry is as important as our education ministry, and with worship form the three central ministries of liberal religion – education to free the mind, worship to grow the soul, and outreach to change the world.  It deserves the same sort of skill and leadership we have in worship and education.  In the last three years we have seen dramatic increase in our service and community ministries because we have staffed it.  We want to increase staff support for social action and community outreach. 
Delving the challenge of diversity is a spiritual challenge more than a programmatic one.  Ancient attitudes about race and class and gender and sexuality dwell in every heart.  This year’s budget calls for leadership training in diversity issues, and will extend to others over the following years.  We have to prepare our souls for what is a long and wet walk.  But the church that is engaged with this work will be ready for an ever more diverse world.  By 2053 there will be no racial majority in the USA.  But we have communities from every corner of the globe here now.  LGBT folk are central to our civic renewal.  If we do not learn now we will not be ready then.  Our budgets for the next three years include money to train leaders, educate members, and cultivate partnerships. 
But my own hope and dream is even larger - that by 2019, our 150th anniversary, everyone in greater GR will have a connection to FSC.  That sounds grandiose but consider how close we already are:
When Occupy Grand Rapids needed a home for the winter, we gave them our porch.  We had Thanksgiving together last year, and they have held meetings and shown movies and hosted free markets here.  When Laughfest comes to town they come here.  I directed Sinbad’s limo myself, when it got lost.  They did not know it was me.  The Community College, the Library, the Hauenstein Center host events here.  The Black Students Union across the street brought Louis Farrakhan here.  Art Prize and the ACLU brought thousands here.  Black Pentecostals have held a convention here, and I haven’t even begun to list our own speakers and musicians who have been here. 
Look even deeper, though.  Smokers lounge on our corner between classes, homeless men come for a cup of coffee, art students come to draw and paint and photograph, members drop in to check their email, volunteers come every day, a crew of developmentally disabled young adults come every week to set up for Character School, AA comes every weekday at lunch.  Yes, worship is the most notable connection, but when a young man from town was killed in Brooklyn this summer his parents asked to hold his memorial here because they had no church and this place is where he graduated from school.  At least once a month someone comes in who wants to see where they were married, or their parents were.  Thousands have a connection to FSC.  We are the church everyone knows by heart. 
But FSC is not just the place.  Our members serve food at God’s Kitchen, clean trash from river banks, kayak down those same rivers, run bingo games for residents of Dwelling Place, partner with Methodists to host homeless families, tutor at Campus School, stand up for marital justice on Rosa Parks Circle, sing with the GR Women’s Chorus (which rehearses here btw) and the multigenerational In Harmony Choir.  We have broken bread with Muslims, Hindus, and Buddhists.  Children in Nepal and El Salvador and GRCC go to school because of us.  Women get health care, little boys play football, and those on the brink of eviction get a reprieve because of FSC.  I could go on, but it all illustrates my point.  We are the church everyone knows by heart.
My dream goes further.  Imagine a web presence that is equal to the building in appeal and access.  Imagine an internet radio station - they exist - broadcasting not just worship and music but also classes for adults and kids.  Imagine a website that allows people anywhere to connect to us, wherever they live.  Our future church will be virtual as much as actual.  Already we have 550 Facebook friends, half of whom do not belong or attend but look to us for daily inspiration or information.  Imagine small groups of people in place like Saugatuck, Big Rapids, Benton Harbor, Holland, Jackson, with no liberal religious community, being able to worship with us where they are.  With a robust interactive web presence we can create a new liberal church.  Here’s the best part.  Doing that is almost cheap.  It requires equipment, yes, but mostly staff support devoted to ministering in the virtual world.  With your financial support, that can happen.
That’s the road ahead– build upon our education history, expand our social ministry, and enter the world of diversity.  Our budget for 2013 takes the first step with staffing pastoral care and social ministry and outreach, with electronic improvements and diversity learning.  It’s not a yellow brick road because we are not heading to Oz to find a wizard to solve our problems. 
The characters in the story thought they needed a wizard to get a brain or a heart or the nerve, but when the wizard was revealed to be but a man they were revealed to themselves to have what they thought they lacked.  I went to England to test my own brain and heart and nerve.  My last day and moment was anything but glorious, in a little abandoned hut with my foamy knees and drenched shoes.  But I had done it, walked 85 miles through mud and rain and wind and manure, maybe banished a few flying monkeys as well as seen some emerald fields of not a city.  I came back surer of who I was. 
Friends, dear comrades on the pilgrim path - we have the wisdom, the faith, and the courage to do great things - if we choose to get up and do them.  No need for wizards to save us, no need to wait for others to join us, nor to hope for better weather, nor to worry we haven’t enough provisions.  I don’t know if heaven or Oz is out there.  I do know that where we are is not the end of our journey.  Let’s go. 

21 October 2012

Are You There? It's Me...

... Hat in hand for being a delinquent writer. 

Part of that was intentional.  I was away, in England, for 18 days in September.  A long imagined and finally fulfilled adventure of the mind and body took me from Tynemouth to Bowness-on-Solway along the path of Hadrian's Wall.  Worth a long report, and pictures.  Lots of pictures.

Then there was all the stuff waiting for me to do when I got back.  No matter how well planned, the work we leave patiently piles up in our absence.  It takes almost as much time to catch up as the time you were away. 

But another part, unintended but very important, is the shift in mind and spirit that came from my long walk. 

One thing being alone on the trail did for me was pull me back toward the primal.  My days were pared down to walking from here to there.  The hours were divided between changes of socks and pauses to hydrate or eat.  The moments were measured in footsteps.  By the second day the ancient rhythm was all I knew and it felt good.  Very good.   

Another thing was recovering a sense of scale.  To spend a week just crossing the land and watching the sky was humbling.  Sometimes the land was difficult, sometimes the sky.  I met forces to which I had to submit - rain, wind, mud, manure, stones, hills, darkness.  And yet I never felt humiliated or defeated. 

I recovered the nourishment of human solitude, which is not being alone.  Without anyone alongside, my ears heard only what the nature offered, like birds and wind and trees.  Without other people, my eyes lit on insects and flowers.  Without human company, I paid attention to the cows and sheep and birds that were my constant companions.

Lastly, I lost my trust in words.  Once, I hoped for a quasi-literary ministry, with pungent and poignant turns of phrase that would endear me to future colleagues who would esteem my wisdom.  No more.  The world does not need my words.  It needs just me. 

This morning my sermon was a stumbling  series of words, deeply felt but poorly said.  Yet the people heard what I was trying to say, despite my words not because of them.  And they cheered.  Yes, applause rose, even a few people stood. 

My words were not that good.  My heart was, though.  They heard that. 

07 October 2012

Dropping Off The Planet...

It must have seemed I had vanished altogether, but in fact I was on retreat.  You will hear more, but maybe this picture will give you an idea....  Stay in touch...