Thursday, August 22, 2002

Stewardship: Replanting

Stewarswhip: Replanting

"How shall we sing the Lord's song in a strange land?"
(Psalm 137:4)

"5 Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat what they produce. 6 Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, . . . . seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the LORD on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare."
(Jeremiah 29:5ff)

In the Dakotas, they say there are two seasons; July and winter. Summer is short and treasured, unlike the mild Southwest where outdoor activities can continue year round and we forget what we should be thankful for. In the northern plains life is very much conditioned by the weather. The growing season is so short there is a very narrow window of opportunity to get the crops planted and harvested. The last frost may come as late as mid-May and the first frost of autumn can come in early August. It's not unusual for a late frost to cause a field to have to be replanted in the spring. But if a farmer waits until it's safe, the crops may not mature before winter sets in once again. When the crops do mature, there is a great rush to get them in while there's still time. The grain elevators work twenty-four hours a day and at midnight there would still be trucks lined up for blocks in our small town waiting to unload. The elevators soon would be filled to capacity and great mountains of corn as high as our house and blocks long would be piled on the ground along the highway until trucks could haul them off weeks later.

The long summer daylight hours of the northern plains make it possible to grow corn to harvest in ninety days whereas in Texas our corn isn't ready for a hundred and twenty days. Vegetable gardens produce so abundantly in the long daylight hours that the joke is you better check the back seat of your car after church or you'll arrive home with more produce than you came with. It's quite comic to watch people unloading grocery bags of zucchini, cucumbers and tomatoes into the back seat of other people's cars when they think no one is looking and Midwesterners never throw anything out. There's no choice but to can it, pickle it, or make it into chow-chow if you can't give it away.

There are far more funerals than weddings in the rural parishes of the Great Plains because most of the young people have left to seek work in the city. Rural communities are close knit and strongly family bonded and funerals are major community events. I learned quickly that I had better arrive at the church at least thirty minutes to an hour early if I wanted to find a parking place. Following the service, which in Protestant churches usually lasts only about thirty minutes since there is no communion, most of the people will go to the cemetery for a short grave side service. Communion takes place later, in the church basement fellowship after the service. In years past, the frozen ground wouldn't permit burials in the winter so it was necessary to store the casket until the spring thaw. Every cemetery had a small building close to the entrance for this purpose where the grave side service would be held and caskets would be stored until they could be laid to rest in the spring. Modern technology has made this practice obsolete with electric heating pads that can thaw the ground even in mid winter.

Early in the spring of my first year in the Dakotas, I noticed the men all standing around the open grave before a service staring intently down into the excavation. I couldn't imagine what they were looking at until someone explained to me that they were checking out the depth of the frost line so to be able to make a prediction about when they might be able to start planting. The southern custom of friends and relatives lingering at the grave site to visit following burials is not followed here. Winter grave side services are over with in a hurry with everyone rushing back to warm church basements for dinner and visiting. Even in the midst of loss, our minds look forward to the daily work and necessities of living. Nothing gives more evidence of the continuity of life and comfort of community than the dinner and visitation following a funeral. A few of the church women always would remain behind at the church to have the potluck meal ready when the mourners returned from the grave side service. The abundance of food would be truly amazing and the fellowship would last for hours. This is true communion: it is in the fellowship of community that we are fed and feed one another and faith is celebrated in a superfluity of food and love.

One year, just before Ernie and Val's family had planned a big 50th wedding anniversary celebration for them, a long time member of the church died and the funeral was held the day before the big event. When the anniversary couple's family announced that the party would be postponed, the family of the deceased insisted that the celebration take place as planned. For a second day in a row, people crowded the church basement dressed in the same clothes that had been worn at the funeral only the day before. The feast was prepared and served by the same ladies who had provided the funeral dinner and was every bit as grand and as the evening wore on, a bubbly five year girl danced and whirled to music from a tape player. Her joy was infectious and nothing seemed more appropriate than we all join in and dance with her.

Services in rural America still almost always take place in churches with the whole community in attendance. There is nothing more depressing than the modern practice of holding funerals in cold, impersonal funeral parlours with the family going home alone to grieve. The church community celebrates our entrance into life in baptism, our covenant with God in confirmation, our commitment to the larger community in marriage, and memorializes our life in faith at life's end. We need the validation and vision of the continuity of life lived in faith in order to get past our grief and get on with the task of living.

When the Jewish prophet, Jeremiah wrote the words quoted above, his people had been conquered by a foreign power and carried off into slavery and exile. It was a time of extreme loss and deprivation. He reminded them that faith means more than anything else, to live and engage in the tasks of living, in community. Salvation is something that takes place in community. The whole community, the place where life has taken us, is saved, or none of us is saved. When we stand together, we can sing, even in exile. To walk the Tao is to walk together. We don't live alone, we don't die alone. We don't walk alone and we don't grieve alone and we can't celebrate alone. If we wait to live until we think it's safe, we may never live at all. We entrust our mountains of golden corn to lie on the ground, which incidentally, is a protection against rot because it drains better than a concrete slab, and we never pass up the opportunity to dance.

The bullies that want to kill life in the name of some fundamentalist notion of religiosity always want to kill joy and the celebration of life. They've missed the whole point. When my father died after a long illness, all his brothers and sisters were together at the funeral in a small West Texas town for the first time in decades. We were so thrilled at seeing each other, all come together after so many miles and years apart, that after the funeral, nothing seemed more appropriate than to make a pilgrimage together to my Father's favorite place on top of a mesa a few miles west of town. Within a few hours after the funeral, at least a dozen of us climbed and scrambled through the cactus and sage brush in all our church clothes to the top of Santa Anna Mesa and sat perched on his favorite rock looking out over the plains. It seemed the most fitting tribute possible and it seemed to us all that he was there with us, enjoying the view and cracking jokes. We were ready then to go back home and replant our gardens and seek the welfare of the places in which we live.

Friday, August 16, 2002

Faith in Exile

"How shall we sing the Lord's song in a strange land?"
(Psalm 137:4)

In all the small Midwestern prairie churches I served, someone always requested "The Church in the Wildwood" when we asked the congregations for their favorite hymns. It's a simple little gospel hymn with a catchy tune that you won't find in any of the new church hymnals but someone always was able to produce an old dusty hymnal from a back closet that had the words and the people would sing it with gusto. I was as secretly disdainful of the hymn as all the rest of my "educated" colleagues in ministry because it recalled a church most of us thought we'd outgrown; mawkishly sentimental and no solid theology for the information age. But it was loved for those very reasons. It is a song from the heart and tells a story about a simpler, more gentle time and place that has vanished from the landscape, a song about an Eden that perhaps never existed except in childhood. A hymn about home.

The anguish of exile is an integral part of the human experience and the root of the malaise of our time. Many of us are permanent transients remaining at most only a few years in any one place. The new Methodist church I belonged to as a young adult was in a rapidly growing suburb where the average family moved every two years. No sooner than we and our young adult friends felt we were putting down some roots, jobs and educational opportunities had us moving again. Being in the ministry is much like being in the armed forces. Now that we are in our retirement years, there is no place we can call home. Family and friends are dispersed all over the map, older family members are gone and even the neighborhoods where we once lived have completely changed residents and character.

Yet, nothing has changed so much for us as the church and nowhere is the change more apparent than in the music. The Reformation and the Protestant church that emerged were literally founded on music. Church music in the middle ages was provided only by trained choirs and had become increasingly polyphonic and complex and distanced from the people. The story is that Martin Luther and his followers would march into a German cathedral singing the hymns he wrote, many of them set to popular tunes of the day, and convert the whole congregation en masse.

Whereas the sacraments and a mystical priesthood have been the principle mediators between the people and the transcendent in the Catholic Church, in the Protestant church it has been the music that was the principle mediator. The Protestant church has produced at least four great hymnody traditions; the German, the English, the American frontier gospel and the spirituals of the black people. Over time, the Protestant church trivialized the sacraments due to her emphasis on "the priesthood of all believers and the individual conversion experience but made up for it with singing. But the cultures that produced these great hymnody traditions have been submerged by modernity and professionalism. Church hymnal committees are now made up of professionals who have tossed out many of the old favorites in favor of theological and political correctness and professional choirs and musicians have once again come to dominate the music of the new mega churches. Hymns for Sunday worship chosen by professional musicians may lift up the themes of the day or satisfy aesthetics, but fail to lift up the heart or call the individual worshiper to commitment. Occasionally a church will host a Sunday afternoon "hymn sing" to satisfy the longing of some of the old timers and a few curious new timers for the music of the heart, but that's not worship which must be an experience that unites a community's heart, hand and mind to a transcendent tradition and value.

On the other hand, younger generations of church goers who have been brought up exclusively on listening to the electronic music of the popular culture and deprived of hands-on public school music no longer know how to sing. In many of the so-called contemporary churches, the great hymns of the church that embedded themselves into the heart and taught generations of the faithful the theology of the church have been replaced with a few easy repetitive "contemporary" choruses that have the theological and artistic content of comic books for the congregations to sing off the wall. Hymnals have disappeared. The new choruses are focused on a weak, privatized individual experience. Instead of singing about the faith, experience and hope of the community, the use of personal pronouns proliferate; I, me, my and mine. Worship is reduced to a mostly a spectator experience with entertainers and spirituality has become a course in self-actualization. It's not just the music that has been trivialized. The reading of scripture in worship also has been largely reduced to sound bites so everyone can get out in time to catch the game on t.v. and preachers no longer seek to illuminate the text and lift up the heart but have become talk show hosts doing interviews or giving out good advice while getting chummy with the audience without notes.

Balance is needed. As a professional musician before I was a pastor I appreciate good music in any form and there are many good new hymns that not only satisfy the heart but are well written in contemporary idioms and contemporary instrumentation is great if a church has access to it. But religion cannot exist without community and community isn't based on a privatized or spectator experience but on a remembered and shared tradition and values. We commit to a story but we can't know what the story is if we don't hear it and sing it.

There is a story about a famous rabbi who, during a time of crisis in the community, would go to a special place in the woods, light a fire and say a special prayer for the deliverance of the people. Deliverance always would come. Then the rabbi died and the new rabbi did not know the special place to go in the woods. Nevertheless, he lighted a fire and said the prayer. Deliverance came just the same. Then that rabbi died and the next rabbi did not know to light the fire or where to go in the woods so he just said the prayer, and deliverance still came to the people. After a time, that rabbi also was gone. The new rabbi was faced with a crisis in the community, but he did not know any of the old rituals or the prayer. So he called the elders together and said to them, "I do not know where to go or what to do and the prayer has been forgotten. But I know the story. He told them the story, and deliverance once again came to the people.

When the woods have all been cleared for new subdivisions and the church is gone and the rituals have been forgotten, may we still have the book and the story and the songs in our hearts.

Sunday, August 4, 2002

Who is the Church?

"Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling;"
(Philippians 2"12)

In a discussion group I attend on Sunday morning on contemporary issues, there was a heated discussion about the kind of music we should have during worship and one person asked another person why they stayed in the church if they had so many criticisms. I thought later that one answer could be that it was like staying in a difficult marriage. The person who asked the question probably would not suggest bailing out of a marriage just because the going got rough, although that is exactly what many people do today. Relationships are never easy, not in families, nor between friends, nor in churches. Scott Peck says that their are only two reasons to be married; children and stress. The first are necessary for the continuation of the human race, and stress is necessary for spiritual growth. We don't divorce our parents or our children when we disagree. Disagreements are bound to occur, even when everyone is doing their best.

It is easy to look for someone else to blame when we don't like what is going on. Last week I wrote about how many people feel they have no spiritual home because the church is failing to address their needs or for a variety of other reasons. But it is far too easy to blame the church, or the pastor for the failings of the church, especially when everyone is having a hard time these days figuring things out. The people themselves must share the blame if things are going wrong or as well as the responsibility for making things right. The Gospel lesson this morning was the story about the disciples coming to Jesus because a great multitude of people had nothing to eat. The disciples expected Jesus to solve the problem, but Jesus told them it was their problem to solve, not his. In the end, he wound up doing it anyway because of the ineptness of the disciples. Jesus is not here to bail out the church.

In the past, pastors and priests actually did exert a kind of autocratic control over the church, but that is hardly the case now, especially in Protestant churches. Only the Catholics and the Methodists guarantee pastoral appointments. All people in positions of leadership are under the gun these days; pastors, politicians, school administrators, fire and police chiefs and athletic coaches. The tenure of these leaders has become very short. Our culture does not respect authority figures. As a result, a Protestant pastor who has to pay the rent and educate his children the same as everyone else has to be very careful about stepping on the toes of his parishioners who hold the purse strings, or he better keep his bags packed in the narthex. Unfortunately in churches as in the rest of the world, the Golden Rule most often practiced is "the one with the gold makes the rules."

I am referring to Christian churches because that is my area of expertise, but from what I have heard and read, the problem is not unique to Christians. Any individual who relies on an institution or organization to pay their salary has to walk a fine line between expectation and conscience. Ultimately, it is the people themselves who decide the scope and direction of ministry, the educational standard or the honesty of an commercial enterprise.

That being said, most people who disagree with the church left long ago and often the ones who have remained have made an accommodation with things as they are, and their numbers are decreasing every day. Yet, we are not going to pull our children out of school because we don't like how they are being taught. We are going to try to change things, if we can, and if we think we can't, we are going to try to get the kids in a different school. Some parents may home-school, but forgoing education altogether is not an option. Foregoing our children's religious education and our own religious duty should not be an option either.

All human institutions are subject to success and failure, bear and bull markets. When things aren't going as we would like, we change strategies, we don't abandon ship. Jesus aimed his harshest criticism at the church, but he never advocated abandoning it because, in spite of her failings, the church was the repository of the wisdom of God, even if her leaders garbled the message.

"Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples, "The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses' seat; therefore, do whatever they teach you and follow it; but do not do as they do, for they do not practice what they teach." (Matthew 23:1-3)

The disciples were called to spiritual reform, to a new vision of what it meant to be faithful and a new commitment to personal responsibility. Every religion has experienced the need to reform and change to meet the needs of a changing world. Change always is difficult and slow, but change is the hallmark of existence and religion is no different. Faith is to tough it out; to remain loyal in difficult situations because of duty, trust and hope in a better future and not to fear the challenge of change. Prayer is the vehicle that helps humans manage change. "Not my will, but thine be done."

In the meantime, in a democratic society, every person must regard the ministry of the church, good schools, honest government, or ethical business practices as their personal responsibility. If we find ourselves alone in asking for change, we always have the option of voting with our feet . . . out the door. But we do not forego the obligation to find another church, or political party, or school or job. That usually can be done, if we're not lazy and expecting spiritual welfare handouts.

The prairie churches I served in the Midwest were all built by people who had no pastors, not for a number of years. These settlers were very poor by our standards and came out to homestead frontier territory where there were no grocery stores, banks to make loans, builder supply stores or jobs. They had few tools, no income and only what they could carry with them in a wagon, on a horse or on their backs. Usually they had only one book and that was a Bible, and maybe one other, a hymnbook in German with no musical notation. They carried the tunes in their heads. They had to take personal responsibility for everything. As soon as enough of them had settled in an area and built shelter for their families, they cooperated to build a school and then a church. Until they could entice a pastor to come out to serve it for little pay and at great sacrifice, they were the school and the church themselves and fulfilled all their functions. No whining allowed. The spirit of personal responsibility still is alive and well in these communities.

The church must change to stay alive, and it is the people who must bring about the change. Eldridge Cleaver said, "If you aren't part of the solution, you're part of the problem." A consumer mentality cannot save the church, our schools, or our government. Consumer mentality and greed are responsible for our recent enormous economic upheavals. If our institutions have failed us, as Pogo observed, "I looked for the enemy, and the enemy is us." Spiritual, ethical and moral failure are failures of community, not just of leadership.

The "kingdom is in your midst." You already know what to do. Trust what you know and do it. No whining allowed.