Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Culture Shock a la 2009

Each week as I write this blog, I focus mostly about the culture shock that ensues as the result of my call to plant a church in north central Pennsylvania. This call required my moving from Denver to Wellsboro/Mansfield, Pennsylvania – city to very rural. As I complete my eighteenth month of this ministry, I look at the congregation and marvel at those who choose to spend a slice of their free time with this church family.

We are old and young: 88 and 8 months not a bad age difference considering the demographic that states our churches are all gray. We are a bit gray, but also towhead and red-haired (natural) and red-haired (not quite so natural anymore).

We are brilliant and differently-abled – and each participates in our worship and in our church community to some extent.

Some of us stand straight and tall, others are bent, still others need canes and walkers. Ah, don’t assume that all the cane users are old – they are not, but have life experiences that have made them more dependent on help than some of the older folk.

Some are black and others white – we try to honor these differences as well as the sameness and humanness of each. Last evening, I went to Kwanzaa – we lighted candles and remembered that the earth and its produce are part of the African heritage. I was reminded that some families trace their heritage only six generations – my mother’s Norwegian family goes back to the 1500s. My paternal “Smith” (Irish) can be traced to the late 1800s.

Some are gay and others very straight. We don’t look to condemn or say, “the Bible says …” rather, we affirm that God loves us all!

We are farmers and teachers and historians and business folk and a minister and a few aspiring toward ministry – I try to encourage this vocation – and car dealers and restaurant owners and just plain hardworking.

We have good music and are grateful for our wonderful gift of a talented piano player to help cover the notes we enthusiastically sing off key.

When I remember to really count my blessings – to focus on what I have to be thankful for, not what I plan for this congregation – I am amazed that this giving group allows me the privilege of serving them. They welcome me into their homes, they offer a shoulder if I need it, a hearty laugh when I forget part of the worship (never the sermon or communion, but occasionally the communion hymn or The Lord’s Prayer) and a meal during holidays when I would be alone. Most of all they honor me by accepting me, by following my lead, by gently questioning my most off-the-wall suggestions and just by loving me.

There is a huge “culture chasm” between Mansfield/Wellsboro and Denver – much of it felt but not seen. I miss Denver and Colorado with an ache; I am blessed to be in this area where acceptance and caring are part and parcel of my adopted community.

And the people of God said “AMEN!”

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Changing skyline

I remember driving over bridges while descending into a new city at dusk or even dark and being awestruck by the skyline presently majestically in front of me. Still today, when I visit some cities, I buy a skyline view magnet and stick it on my refrigerator. When I move, the magnets and fond memories move with me.

Recently, I drove from Wellsboro, the mountainous borough where I live in north central Penna to Mansfield, the borough where my church building stands. On the way, I noticed, really noticed, what had been happening to our community over the last six months. Work crews have dramatically altered the night skyline!

Six months ago, work on gas lines for the Marcellus Shale drilling began in earnest. It was so quick that one day I could drive on any two-lane road and see farm country. Literally, the next day, the very next day, there would be a gas well blowing off excess gas through flames that were very tall. Derricks surrounded farmhouses while big red tanker trucks drove over our two-lane roads traveling at speeds only the very young would have driven the year before. Water fracking (basically, using water to explode shale) became part of the every day language of our community and talk of water shortage – in PENNSYLVANIA for goodness sakes! - is a concern as we begin to conserve water.

In the same six months, our communities joined the 21st century in another very important way – we got access to wind energy. Windmills – otherwise called wind turbines – sprouted like flowers on the mountain ridge. If I were to drive from Mansfield to Scranton (130 or so miles) I would pray for two things: no deer running down to the road and no truck carrying wind blades in front of me. Thus far, my angels have kept both from my path.

Last week, at dusk, I made the west to east road trip that comprises the 12 miles between Wellsboro and Mansfield. That night, for the very first time, I really saw the skyline as it has changed. The view is no longer merely replete with trees dormant, preparing to burst forth leaves in spring. Now it has derricks with night lights to keep low-flying air traffic (we do occasionally have a small plane here) from crashing and the wind turbines have red lights atop the blades that turn ever so slowly making and storing energy for later use.

This change has brought income to our community for many who often lived on the edge of poverty. One can only hope that local residents benefit as much from the gas exploration and wind power as have the companies that changed our skyline.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Who actually makes a difference?

This morning, I read a short sermon written by John Bell (of the Iona Community in Scotland) from his book States of BLISS and Yearning (2002). He takes the reader/listener through John's description of Jesus meeting a woman at the well including the problems inherent with talking to her, who she might be and ramifications of the conversation.

As I reflected on this essay, I was struck by my similarity to the woman -- not to Jesus . My life has, at times, been less than upright and wonderful. I have done things I regretted, even at the time I was doing them. I wish I could go back and change things, though I know that not even the gods can change has has been, to paraphrase Agathon 440 BCE. As I entered seminary I frequently asked "why me?" Me, raised Roman Catholic, who cannot quote scripture all that well. Me, who at various times in my life, has been alienated and seriously questioned whether there is a God. Me, who does not want to evangelize from the street corner. Why am I doing this? Why not some better suited?

Then in my more reflective time - perhaps when I am actually listening to the mystery I call God - I get this idea that not everyone who seeks God can quote scripture or even wants to. Most everyone who seeks - who has been alienated - who has huge doubts - wants something larger than themselves to believe in or to blame for ill-fortune at times or to pray to in times when everything seems impossible. And, these "spiritual but not religious folk" that I want to reach pass the street-corner evangelist with barely a glance. This outlook gives me hope that maybe I am in the right place at the right time -- for someone. Even if only one person were to find a link to the Divine because I was here, then I am in the right place.

Who knows what the link will be. For example, Sunday evening, I gave a ride to a student who spent most of our hour in the car telling me why there is not God (he is reading Ayn Rand). I spent time countering his rational argument by offering faith with about as much luck as the street-corner evangelist has with me. He did not listen any more than I do to the person crying out "REPENT!" But maybe, in the recesses of my mind, I did hear message - perhaps in the back of his mind, he did to. After I dropped him at his home, I was reflecting on my inability to get through to him and wondered why I should be this preacher-person when I realized that I am only the messenger. God does the work.

May the work that God does bless you and make you smile and keep you warm and offer you good and Godly things.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Dickens of a Time

This past weekend was the designated weekend of our community Dickens Celebration. This fairy-tale event happens each year during the first weekend of December. The folk wisdom is that this weekend will be the coldest weather we will have had thus far in the year. I dressed for the weather – light snow – but not for the temperature and had to walk home mid-morning to change into warmer, less fashionable, clothes.

Cold means different things to each of us. The vendors standing outside on the sidewalk in freezing cold have one description of “cold” – many spent the year making their special craft to sell and this opportunity is one of the best to reach an appreciative audience. Cold to others, such as the Kiwanis Club to which I belong, means that more customers will want the clam chowder that we sell. A quick review of the fund-raising vendors showed that our soup was the best priced of all choices. We ran out by 1PM and disappointed those who came late. After waiting all year for the soup, they will have to wait until next year. One customer told me he will come to our stand first next year so he is sure to get a cup of the soup.

Aside from the cold, this weekend offers friends from years past opportunity to reconnect – greet with hugs (a bit of additional warmth of just for a second), laugh, catch up on recent family happenings. Even though this was just my second year, I had people to talk to that I had not visited with during the year and several stories collected over the year to share. I saw Marcy and we talked of having lunch together; I will call her after the beginning of the year and make the lunch happen. There was a peace march, led by Quakers; a tree lighting ceremony in the town square – the lights having been replaced after vandals cut all electric lines during a night “prank;” and local churches offered hymn sings. The light covering of snow capped off the storybook images.

Reflecting on this weekend, I think we yearn for times when life was easier. Cold, shared stories and an old town atmosphere are inviting. So very inviting that visitors drive from New Jersey, Canada, Vermont, Maryland and Pittsburgh to spend this weekend in the mountain town. Visions of sugarplums dancing in our collective heads epitomize this experience. This event lives in the memories of those who organize and those planning a weekend retreat to Wellsboro Penna next year.

Reality intruded on Sunday morning when I drove to church through gray slush and cold and saw the fairy-tale town littered with trash as our borough turned back to real life struggles faced by our community and members of my own congregation where too many do not have sufficient warmth or a job or transportation to get to a job if there was one.

Life is harsh in this community for some, a fairy tale retirement for others. At this time of realized dreams, may the peace march be effective and the jobs program be reworked so more can be employed and may the government home financing programs reach those who only want a home of their own for Christmas this year.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Going into Advent

Good morning, Friends

This week is the first week of Advent, 2009. Sunday was designated as "Hope" Sunday. I barely had any hope as I drove to worship. I felt the weight of the world on my shoulders and tears started to come, just from the sheer tiredness of being solo pastor in this church. Ministering to the growing congregation and beginning the new church seems overwhelming at times. The bright spot of that drive was that I would go to a church in Elmira, NY that afternoon. Just to sit and be washed in grace. And, I did and I was.

The congregation in Elmira is not huge, but, like my own, it is filled with spirit and hope and joy. This congregation is where I "borrowed" the idea of having the children's band at the conclusion of our service - the 2- 3- and 4-year old children (and older, too) play a percussion instrument to accompany our amazing Charles.

As I sat in this Catholic (not "Roman") mass, the tiredness and feelings of the world on my shoulders left and I was at peace with myself and the world. For that time I found what I think people seek when they dare to come to a church after years of absence. I think they are seeking the experience that I have in this holy place. Offering that experience is my duty as a minister. The grace-feeling cannot come from a secular society no matter how many activities are offered.

My prayer and hope this week of Advent? when visitors come to our congregation, they find the same grace and peace and love and acceptance that I find in this worship comprised of Catholics wanting a new church in a changing age.