Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Christmas 2010 style

Occasionally, I remind myself the purpose of this blog is to write about experiences that I have as a city pastor in a rural community. This is the perfect time of year to look at some of the changes the two years in Pennsylvania have wrought.

In Colorado, before my husband died, at Christmas I would be preparing for 20 or more people for Christmas dinner. I would actually have planned a menu and purchased food. Most likely turkey and though I am not fond of turkey it seems many feel that turkey is a Christmas feast. I prefer prime rib though as my lifestyle has changed, I rarely eat beef these days. Not much poultry for that matter. Since I no longer eat gluten, my “feast” would be limited - if one counts “feast” only in food terms. These years, I count feast as part of time spend with friends and those important in my life. I cry when I remember the feast of friends and family I miss who are still in Colorado.

This year, knowing how much I miss family and friends, I offered (and had it in the newspaper) a free Christmas dinner to the first thirty people who called just to say they want a place to eat. So far, three days before Christmas and one day (or two) before I have to shop, not one person has called. I have invited five - three will come. As I wondered why no one called, I thought how it would seem to call a stranger to say I had no place to go on this family holiday. Pretty daunting. It must be even worse when the open invitation is to a home (a pastor’s home at that). Homes are intimate, therefore perhaps intimidating. Homes are final in the sense that once you are in the door, leaving with grace could be difficult (how many times have I planned my escape even before arriving?). Homes imply love, which also implies loss; homes offer warmth, but what is wrong with me (or anyone) that we have to look outside ourselves to fill that cold spot? So, this week, I offer fellowship to three people who have accepted my invitation - I know each of them, so I don’t feel strange. In inviting each of them, I was inviting my friends to join me for dinner. Yea!

Finally, this season, I gathered with the Spirituality sisterhood for a solstice celebration. For some Christians, solstice is pagan and is far from their frame of reference. They, in my opinion, are those who forget that our faith co-opted nonbelievers by incorporating their pagan - meaning believer in earthly gods - beliefs into the new sect called Christianity about some 1900 years ago. At any rate, the solstice ceremony is a bonding of friends to caring and love of one another, it is a pledge to care for animals and the firmament as well as each person. Global concern! The solstice celebrates the world’s (universe’s?) interconnectedness and raises our awareness that when a butterfly flutters its wings in Peru, we notice it in Pennsylvania. Part of any good ceremony includes gift giving and even giving of the self as we shared our reasons for giving a specific gift and food. We had abundance of each. With this sisterhood, I know one thing for sure: wherever I go in this community, I have a connection to some women who recognize in me the friend, not the stranger.

How blessed I am. God has indeed smiled on me as this opportunity to live in a “foreign” land has unfolded.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Loneliness during the "most wonderful time of the year"

Today I went to Act Up, the community group that leans toward interesting reading aloud. After we finished, I stopped by the Fifth Season (clothing for women and home decorating) to see if there is anything I could wear to Christmas Eve/New Year’s Eve parties. I know I will go to three Christmas Eve gatherings; who knows about New Year’s Eve, there is still time and one wants to be prepared just in case ...

I struck out at Fifth Season, though I do try to shop locally prior to trekking to the malls. I need to qualify “struck out” a bit. I did not find anything to wear. But I did eves-drop on a conversation between one woman (Denise) and the store manager (Susan). Their conversation gave me a different gift to take away this Christmas season.

Denise is living in Wellsboro while her husband works for one of the many gas companies. They are from Austin, Texas - a place of sun, music, life outside and many goings-on. Wellsboro, while having many things to offer, is in a different league. Denise and others are feeling the isolation one feels when living out of one’s element.

As I said, I was eves-dropping while standing in a line without something to purchase. I read recently that any line is an excuse to tell my story. As I listened to Denise’s story, wishing I had a way to break in, I ignored the obvious: just joining the conversation. Once I left the store, got into my Beetle and started to drive out of the parking lot, I determined that I could be rude and join their talk, so I then circled around and parked again.

Denise was still in line at the store (wrapping takes time) so I joined the conversation. A few questions by me garnered the following information: Denise and her husband lived in Mexico, where culture was varied and quite interesting. They lived in Ireland and other European countries, experiencing cultures some of us only read about. Comparatively speaking, Wellsboro is a bit keyed down. Consequently, Denise is lonely. I asked what things she would interest her. Response: exercise, cooking lessons, volunteer work. YEA! For me, these are things that are do-able.

As an immediate option for the loneliness, I asked what she and her husband were doing for Christmas (“Nothing”) so I gave Denise my telephone number and told her that I was offering Christmas dinner to anyone from the community who called. If they wanted to come, give me a call. I hope she calls.

Even if Denise does not call, Soul Link can find ways to help address the loneliness she and others find in this beautiful mountain community four-hours from everywhere. I have been aware that the changes that accompany the gas companies bring opportunities for our faith community to begin a second outreach. Our Fourth Sunday Supper, at 18 months old, is settled in and the congregation is able to add one community outreach. I have ideas of what we could do, but nothing is crying out to be noticed. IDEAS: any six-week class on any topic of interest led by a congregation member or a community member. Yoga comes to mind, as does a weekly gathering of couples cooking and tasting food from other cultures or heritages.

What else? If any of you reading this blog have ideas to offer, ideas whether tried or not, let me know. Perhaps we can incorporate them into this outreach effort.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Chiasms and Similes and new efforts, Oh, My!

In seminary we learned things about how the Bible is written - you will recognize them as I write them: there are poems, Psalms of lament and joy and wonder and prayer. There are narrative stories by those who wrote the Gospels and there are first hand experiences such as those relayed by Saul of Tarsus now known as Paul. There some writing styles called chiasms where certain ideas are repeated. In their repeating they are alphabetically differentiated so that “A” is equal to “A-.” As an example, in looking at the substance of part of Genesis we learn that certain themes repeat themselves. In Genesis 2:4-4:1, early talk of generations is equal to “A” and later talk predicting birth of a child becomes “A-” even when “A-” occurs may verses later. For some reason, I really liked this in my Hebrew Scriptures class.

In addition to the above, there are similes and metaphors that are used to say how one thing is like a second. A grammar site ( differentiates the two:

A good book is like a good meal. A simile suggesting that a book may be as (mentally) nourishing and satisfying as a meal.
A wire is a road for electrons. A metaphor suggesting that electrons actually do use a wire as a road to travel on.

The simile is what I choose for writing this day for Tuesday Thoughts. The simile of a community and a church. (I won’t belabor the point by saying how the two may be different.)

To the point! Last weekend was Dickens weekend in our community. People drive from all over Pennsylvania, New York, New Jersey and as far as Maryland, Virginia and Ohio to experience this interesting and fun weekend. Motel reservations are made one year in advance. This is an important weekend for our local merchants and though many in the community know most of what is happening, they volunteer to help various art organizations, choirs, acting troops and community theatre to assure that success of this annual fete.

On Saturday, weather was perfect reading 0 C on the digital bank clock, no wind and to top it off, we had snowflakes floating through the air sticking to eyelashes and faux fur collars of coats. As is the custom at this time of year, most everyone was holding hands as they walked, smiling up and down the streets, and I did not hear one cross child at all. The 5PM peace walk brought 40-50 walkers going toward the town green where several hundred gathered to listen to a few carols and light the Christmas tree.

I had volunteered to sell clam chowder for Kiwanis from 10 to noon. I walked to town early to look over the vendors’ wares brought to tempt me though I knew I might only purchase one item: a carved Christmas tree (apparently the line formed at 5:30AM and I was too late at 8:30 - even though selling was not to begin until 9AM). After walking and touching and restraining myself, I got to the Kiwanis booth at 9:50 and sold clam chowder - $3.50 for each 8 oz cup: oyster crackers and salt and pepper optional.

While at the booth, others from the community were helping in some way make this weekend a success. Some acted in one of two indoor staged presentations of “A Christmas Carol.” As I left the Kiwanis stand, hands frozen, to return home for awhile, evidence of other community helpers abounded: one of the impromptu theatre troops performed in the middle of the street affecting a Dickinsonian-like gathering. All were dressed in period clothing and participating with good cheer. Half a block away, youth with top hats and rosy cheeks gathered to sing carols. I know, though I did not go, the Presbyterian Church offered soup to warm the innards and music was played at the Gmainer Art Center to give folks a reason to be out of the cold for a few minutes of warmth.

It was, in short, a group of community citizens partnering with merchants and the arts to make this tourist weekend a success. This, in chiasmic terms, becomes “A.”

This “community action” reminds me of church (the simile). One person begins an effort and others, wanting to see success, help in whatever way they can. Our Fourth Sunday Supper is like this. At first, during a congregational meeting, a few brave folk voted to host this supper each month. We decided to give it a try. Not something that could be thought of as “easy-peasy.” There are responsibilities: getting congregation members to prepare food or have food donated, then cooking, then setting tables, collecting and washing dirty dishes and table wear, making sure the floor is clean before we leave and disposing of the trash. But each month, people gather to make this a success. We are into this 18 months and still going strong. Depending upon the weekend, as many as 90 people come to eat, to talk with others and to listen (perhaps line dance) to live music. All for free - with no preaching. It is our way to be Christian in the community.

Lately, I have noticed that some who hear about us come to help. Someone may bring an extra pie, a couple helps in the kitchen even to cleaning the floor at the end of the evening. Others - whether within our community or outside of it - send money to help defray expenses. Monthly, musicians offer music for two hours.

In short, this is a group of caring individuals partnering with others and each other to make this meal a success. This part of a chiasm would be labeled “A-” and be the completing component of a symmetrical depiction of community.

“A” and “A-” combined is the simile: showing how one community event may be likened to another. In this case, both are a success though of course, the simile could be used to depict a terrible event. At this time of the year, I tend to want to be Pollyannaish even as I seek similes for Sunday’s sermon on John the Baptist (Matthew 11:2-11).

This is exciting: We are preparing to add another (less demanding) activity to reach others as we continue being Jesus-like Christians in our community. Stay tuned for this new effort.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010


I spent Thanksgiving with LaVonne. It was a nice several days, providing a respite I needed and the 10 hour drive down and back gave me ample time to think about the state of the world (and my life). The thinking is the subject of another blog. Today, I write about Burke’s Garden and LaVonne’s ministry there.

Arriving at Burke’s Garden takes tenacity and endurance. Once one has travelled about as far south in Virginia as possible, a right turn takes the car up over a winding gorgeous roadway, then down into a valley surrounded by the Garden Mountains. Mr Burke is long gone but his unexpected trip to this area lives on in his name. After climbing up several thousand feet - best done in daylight - then down the same number of feet, the forest gives way to a bowl called Burke’s Garden.

LaVonne had emailed me detailed directions, so I drove past the one and only store with gas station out front, past the volunteer fire department and the former school that now functions as community center till I came to the Pepsi sign. Took another right and crossed two cattle guards to arrive at the top of a hill that overlooks much of this valley. It was twilight as I arrived with still sufficient light to see the view she wakes to daily. Breathtaking is the best way to describe the sight.

During my time there, she drove me around the valley and out to see the second church in Blue Field (VA, not WV) where is is Vicar. Her house is the parsonage for Central Luther Church, though if your vision of parsonage conjures up well-worn and modest, put that aside. Her digs for this year are not dull and neglected, but light and bright. She lives in the home of a woman who rents to the church - a glass house, built just a few years ago. A glass house with radiant heated floors and instant hot water, skylights and windows offering the valley a way inside.

During my time, we spent time eating and talking and discussing theology for Sunday’s sermon. I hope hers turned out better than I think mine did. But it was good to have a person to test my thoughts as they formed and were discarded.

On Wednesday, LaVonne had organized a community interfaith service and supper. The other part of “interfaith” was the Methodist congregation. LaVonne’s pastor preached and the Methodist minister helped with prayer and singing. After, those gathered enjoyed a pie-fest, complete with turkey (good for me since I don’t eat gluten - not so good for LaVonne, since she eats gluten but no meat or dairy though she did enjoy the vegan pies). We ate Thanksgiving with a neighbor who fixed food for LaVonne (some dairy free and meatless options) and I had the meat and no stuffing.

What the food brings to mind - and the real purpose of this blog - is taking note of the similarity between how LaVonne is trying to create a community in this mountain town of 100 families and how I try to encourage community at Soul Link in Mansfield PA and how FCC in Colorado Springs creates church by creating opportunity for people to engage and interact. “Church” “God” “Jesus” scripture and the other theological concerns are often perceived as unimportant - it appears that what draws folk to our congregations in this text-messaging world is the congeniality, the mixing with others, laughing and working and pulling the load together.

LaVonne and I are bright, well-educated at a stellar seminary and we both end up hosting meals as a way to involve theology in the lives of those who eschew church. I hope the best minds can come up with another way to build a church. One that asks us to use our collective brains. Most church websites focus on the activities and events one can attend. At a conference a year ago, the presenter, Gil Rendle of The Alban Institute, talked about how churches are emptying but God is standing there, watching. He reminded us that God will be there as we all struggle to find the newest way to do church. And, according to Phyllis Tickle (and others) in 500 years or so the struggle to make church relevant begins again.