Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Two ways of understanding faith

I spent the past weekend in Philadelphia at the bi-annual Regional Assembly for Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). It followed, by six weeks, the bi-annual Convention of the Penn Central Conference of the United Church of Christ. Even as I write this, it sounds confusing. Easier to say Disciples and UCC, so I will here.

Every other year, both groups converge on a conference center to keep in touch, to recognize new clergy and those who have died and to celebrate many years of ministry. Children attend and have a “youth” track – activities that interest them. A good thing because sometimes what the adults do is not necessarily interesting to adults, though business is important.

At these meetings, I think it is truthful to say that I am the only person wearing the hats of two denominations: the UCC and the Disciples. I observe the differences between these sister denominations and wonder how they partnered; yes, I did take polity for both denominations in seminary, but practical application is a far cry from classroom learnings. Let me tell you some differences I observed:

Worship is very different – at the Disciples this weekend, each worship I attended was Praise Worship. Lots of singing and standing and Praising Jesus. Not much in the “familiar hymns” department. At UCC, there were contemporary hymns as well as some most Protestants sang as they came up in the church.

Preaching is another huge difference – at the Disciples’ it was filled with emotion and Biblical citations. At the UCC, a preaching centered on a central Biblical theme, but it was more intellectual and far quieter. Almost no “Amens” during the sermon.

At the UCC, it is required that clergy and lay ministers attend; not so at Disciples. At UCC, spouses were included and I saw fewer spouses at the Disciples though it is interesting (to me) that the spouses I did see were from the district of which Soul Link is a part. With the attendance requirement, 500+ attended the UCC event in June; about 200 attended this past weekend.

Sameness is also relevant.

At both, I renewed acquaintances, developed a few new relationships and participated at every level. I also contributed the same amount of money to the worship collections – a stretch gift for me. Father Jim Callan, a priest at Spiritus Christi in Rochester and Elmira, NY, said recently that once you give the money, it is given and there is no loss. I find that to be true and wish I could impart that wisdom to all those who contributed from scarcity rather than from plenty.

Another sameness: there are books for sale. Books are my downfall and since I cannot take money with me when I die, perhaps they will either cremate all my books with me or, better yet, give them to an institution that could use books on preaching and new church planting and making “tithers out of tippers” and church history. Not to mention seven or eight versions of the Bible in sizes ranging from carry-able to not easily portable.

One other sameness – and the basis for our gathering – God was present. In one venue as head of a Trinity in the other, as God, Creator. Not only was God present, so was Jesus, the foundation of the Christian faith, and the Holy Spirit, mover of souls. The question of Trinity in these settings seems unimportant to me, though I am sure that others might see me as heretic for my lack of caring. I think that however one comes to God, it is the journey that is important, not how you pray.

At one meeting there were many references to acceptance of all avenues to God – letting the broader community know that Muslims and Jews and Hindus and others all seek God, just using a different avenue. At the other, inclusion and reconciliation were important words but the way to God was only through Jesus.

If you know me and have read this far, you might wonder how I bridge the differences. Sometimes, I wonder the same. Let me give an example: my preaching appeals to both groups as does my style of worship. I can meet individuals wherever they are on their life’s journey and not condemn or tell them they need to change their thinking. I can sing the old favorites but prefer the new with upbeat music and find one praise song sufficient. I love all and welcome all to our church family. As a result of our worship, I try to send congregants out as Jesus-people, looking for the marginalized, or send them out knowing they are loved and cared for by the same God that so many other Christians and non-Christians recognize and pray to. I try to affirm community and how we can be active both within the church walls and within the larger communities where our homes are.

When I show my preferential “colors” is in small Bible study groups where I remind the participants that the scripture was not channeled to those who are named as writers of the gospel and again, in book groups where the books I select are contemporary and pushing the envelope of our Catechism teachings. I also talk to an individual about an all-loving God, not the Santa Claus God of childhood that kept a naughty-and-nice list and rewards us accordingly.

Bridging these two worlds of Christianity is frequently uncomfortable and I too often find myself wishing for one over the other. Then, in my more sane and objective moments, I remember that I am better off when I see my theology as residing on a continuum rather than at a solid end. I grow when I offer two views to those who ask me questions. And I grow when I see many points on that continuum – those points remind me that God is found in every experience, no matter the label.

Let the people say “AMEN!”

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Caught between centuries

Some forms of safety are vanishing in much of my world! This morning a news crawler had this “family sought as body of young girl found.” Is it in the home where we are not safe? or on our streets? or on airplanes? or in cars?

Last night as I walked home from band practice at 9:00, I marveled at this community and my ability to walk a mile in the almost-dark and feel safe. As I left the middle school where band rehearses, two young deer jogged in front of me, crossing the street. Neither of us were afraid and kept on our respective way. A block and a half later, I passed Hamilton-Gibson House and saw lights still on – Thomas working late?

Just a block later, I walked past our town green where a few people gathered, doing summer night things. Not kick the can games, but adult “let’s get out of the house this evening” things. Among those who got out: I saw the silhouette of a person standing in front of the Winken, Blinken and Nod water feature, just staring. I often stop there to stare. Around the perimeter of the park, several people – mostly couples – sat on metal benches talking and one or two just walked. Most of the couples I see in this community walk holding hands. Pretty nice for 21st Century America.

The evening was finally cool after oppressive humidity and a welcomed rain. The night was perfect, made the more so because I was able to walk past, not worry about those people in the park, hearing – in my head – lingering strains of music we are practicing for the last Wednesday in July concert (a selection Scottish music and composers) and get to my home (doors left unlocked) just enjoying the evening.

This is a good town, a good part of Pennsylvania. Lots of people know this and vacation here. But earlier in the afternoon we had a traffic jam (almost a daily occurrence) where getting through a light takes sometimes as many as four red-turning-to-green lights. We back up two blocks, but the omnipresent gas-related trucks take one light each to turn. They are that big. Adding to the confusion, visitors don’t know when to walk because “WALK” comes on when lights are red in both directions. These visitors try to get across the street on a green, just as some wise parent or teacher taught, or maybe the ways it is done at home. Unfortunately, there is no sign commanding the stranger to walk when traffic from both directions is stopped.

Since I moved here, there are changes. Visitor-caused traffic jams and trucks-gearing-up-to-get-to-their-business-for-the-day traffic jams. Still, I walk alone at night and leave my car running (almost like a native) when I go into the convenience store. Lord, I hope some things do stay the same even as progress takes us ahead of our vision.

Friday, July 16, 2010

Loose ends

What is more important – sermon for Sunday or the blog that I was to have written three days ago? Right now, the blog.

Tuesday was way too full to allow time for blogging. I started work at 7AM – got up 2 hours earlier to drink coffee, pray and meditate (maybe they are the same) and finished the day at 11:55 when I clicked send on one final email. O, I watched two hours of TV in between: White Collar and Covert Affairs. I had a meeting Mansfield that started the same time as the dream group, so I made the 24 mile round trip for a 30-minute conversation (well worth the effort) and the dream group let themselves in. They are always welcome.

Then, on Wednesday – just as busy, but differently. One difference: the Almost World Famous Wellsboro Town Band played at 7PM. By the time the concert was over, my thumb could not hold the clarinet one second longer. The music was almost all cut time with too many eights and sixteenths for my skill level. Here is the news: I did have a “solo” – at least that is what I am telling everyone. The next-to-the-last piece was from Phantom of the Opera (a medley of tunes) and I was the scream! You could hear me through the town green so I was loud enough and people loved it. None of the audience knew who screamed until I told them. Suits my “exhibitionist” leaning.

Thursday I hardly remember except working on Thursday evening at church where a community group showed a film on gas and oil drilling in the west. “Fracking” is a new word that is part of our vocabulary and we don’t like it. We also do not like “if you don’t sign a lease, we will just drill under you …” But still, the gas companies bring economic heath. Such a conundrum.

Finally, today, Friday I think about Sunday’s sermon. I am not one to just pull one out of the file, though perhaps I should. I will not resort to old thinking; I want the message to be fresh and mean something to those in the pews. I have a vision, but need a succinct statement for the point. All in the next three hours before I drive to Corning, then back for opening of Hamilton-Gibson’s 20th Anniversary Musical Gala!

Wednesday, July 7, 2010


Wellsboro has a town band – The Almost-World Famous Wellsboro Town Band - someone said that having a town band was “sweet” and it is. One of the nice things about this band is that virtually anyone can join and play. Even a clarinet player who only played in 4th grade for one year and when our military family was transferred, the clarinet was not, so clarinet was no longer part of my life.

Until a friend in Colorado asked me if I wanted to join the New Horizons Band – I said I could not play – he said they would teach me and he would lend me his older clarinet. So, at age 60 or so, I became a clarinet player. And loved it! The first day, the band instructor – a very famous band instructor - taught me how to play middle “C” and middle “G” – he said the next time I came he would teach me a few more notes. Over two years, I practiced and played and learned and got better until I moved from Bronze Band to Silver and was invited into the night band. I vowed nothing would come between me and my clarinet (which by this time was a wood Buffet b flat clarinet). But, something did come between us. Seminary. I just could not practice and go to this demanding school full time. So, once again, the clarinet playing was gone from my life. But this time, my clarinet remaind part of my life and rode in my car (front seat) with me from Colorado to Pennsylvania.

In my playing history, cut time with accompanying eighths and sixteenths are somewhat beyond my level of expertise. Until I played in the Mansfield Field 4th of July parade last year (with the Rinky Dink Band) I had never played with music on a lyre. I had never played standing up. Our music in Colorado was more orchestral than march, frequently fast, but rarely calling on my inexperience for playing. When we needed a tremendous clarinet player, we had the band leader’s wife (their son plays first clarinet in NY Symphony Orchestra).

The music in the Wellsboro Town Band is beyond me. However, I learned something from a friend who rides her bike all over Colorado Springs. When she first started riding she joined a bike ride and going up a hill had to stop and walk. She told the leader of the ride that she could not make it up the hill – he said “keep riding.” Good advice. I will keep practicing – by next year, I will be better.

If asked why I bother with this difficult instrument, I would have to give this answer: Christmas Eve four years ago, the musician for the church I served did not show up for our morning worship. Plain quit. Without telling anyone. Having an evening service planned, I spent the day listening to Christmas music and downloading what appeared to be singable carols from iTunes. What a church musician adds that iTunes does not is keepping tempo with the congregation: the congregation could listen, but not sing with the music I downloaded.

That one event taught me that modern churches need music. In a pinch, I play the clarinet so at least we have a melody to follow. I expect that God does not care too much about our music. I can’t say the same for our members. Unless each hymn is one they have sung all of their lives, they cannot/will not sing without accompaniment. In the emerging church movement, music is newer with the musical message tweaked to fit our modern culture. In church we do the familiar, but I add the new, and play it often enough so that it becomes part of the culture of this “emerging” congregation.

There is another reason that I keep playing this challenging instrument: I love playing!