30 June, 2014

Hospitality? Extravagant Welcome?

You know that car advertisement where the song from Cheers! is playing whilst a known character walks in the convenience/gas mart and is warmly welcomed?  Then the guy driving the fuel efficient car walks in, and the music stops.  And the conversations stop.  The warmth of the gathering goes cold while the second guy is buying a bottle of water. It's an awkward moment. 

That was my experience at a gathering of "the church" a while ago.  I was the unknown person in the diesel car. Only instead of everyone staring at me, I was alone in the crowd.

I entered the gathering not knowing anyone; but, hey, it's  a church gathering and I'm an extrovert, so I wouldn't leave that way, right? Not! I've never felt so unwelcome and alone at a gathering of church people. The only people who spoke to me were the person who received my attendance fee and handed me a name tag, another person who I approached but who didn't remember me from when we both worked for the same entity, and the person who was there from my church. To be fair, the person from my church did introduce me to a few people before the meeting. And each welcomed me as a new person. But no one continued the conversation after the gathering or sought us out during the break.

While worship was lively and rousing, for me it was a solitary and not a corporate experience.  The printed worship outline was very sparse.  Music was sung from memory; only I didn't know all the melodies or the lyrics.  The accompanist was so loud I couldn't hear the song leaders or soloists.  A couple of prayers were recited from memory; only, again, I didn't know them.   

Throughout the gathering,  "Insider" language (terms for undefined groups, ministries, property names, positions, etc) was used and unexplained, assuming all knew to what it referred. I took out my phone and looked up the website of the gathering only to be further stymied by there being no definitions there either; and the site had not been updated in a number of years!  In the gathering, nothing was explained. References were made to narratives with which I was not familiar.  The leaders and attendees assumed all knew what was going on.

The most painful time, however, came after the business of the gathering at what in my previous experiences of gatherings would have been a time of fellowship and widening the circle... lunch. Where two or three are gathered, Christ is present!  While waiting alone in line for lunch, people ignored me when I tried to introduce myself; without offering their name or eye contact, they turned to the person they were with in line and continued to talk to one another. After 4 attempts, I decided that either my breath was really foul, or I was not welcome to join them. I stepped out of the line and left the gathering. On my way to my car, even the people on the street were more friendly and welcoming than had been the "church."  I drove home without lunch feeling very much alone and wondering why I had spent my day off at this gathering.

Three days following the meeting, a person who spoke at the meeting and who needed the support of area "Church" people to raise support for a ministry of the gathered group left a message in my voice mail box.  The person was asking me to attend an informational gathering where financial support would be solicited for this important ministry.  This person was one of those who had turned away when I introduced myself.  Hearing the name on my voice mail felt like a stab in my chest.  I listened to that voice mail twice.  I even wrote down the phone number to which a response was requested.  Inside I raged with hurt.  I checked my reaction and chose to simply delete the voice mail.  I did not pass the message on to others who could have attended.  I could not bring myself to feel at all interested in the cause.  

I am an extrovert.  I have never met a stranger.  Until that gathering.  And I was the stranger.  I did not seek to be the center of attention; I sought to be welcomed as a stranger, as one seeking belonging amid the body of Christ gathered.  I left a stranger unwelcomed.

I now have a much better understanding of the guest who visits a new church.  I understand why some never return after being ungreeted in worship or standing alone in the fellowship hour.  I have felt first hand the sting of being the outsider within a group who see themselves as very friendly and who claim to have an "Extravagant Welcome."  

I believe in the Extravagant Welcome of the my church. I have experienced it in many settings! I'm sorry that it was not exercised or visible at this gathering. We CAN do better!  We MUST do better for Christ commands it!

  • What made you feel welcome in a gathering of people?  
  • What can the Church do differently to aid in authentic hospitality?  
  • What can you, personally, do to help a guest in your congregation feel welcomed and want to belong?
  • Who might be avoiding involvement in a ministry because they have felt unwelcome, and how might the bridges be mended and the hurt healed?

12 June, 2014

Bibs and Aprons, part 2.

This is the second in a three part series.  Here is the first.

Having spent many summers on Cape Cod, I treasure the flavor and messiness of eating lobster.  While my family did not have a commercial interest in lobsters, my father purchased permits for each of his 4 or 5 lobster pots; we enjoyed a lot of fresh lobster.  This was a source of great joy and puzzlement for some of our summer visitors; the flavor and delicacy always brought smiles while the complicated process of eating it always raised the eyebrows of those who had never eaten it before.

Not long ago, lobster was considered to be the food of indentured servants and prisoners.  The crustacean is a bottom feeder and its nickname was the “cockroach of the ocean;” it was considered to be “beneath” the palates of the well heeled.  Often employment contracts for household staff would include a provision that they not be fed lobster more than once a week!  The primary use for these crabs was as fish bait and as fertilizer.  But for the less fortunate, this “bottom of the food chain” was a valuable source of protein and nutrition.  (For an interesting read on how we came to see lobster as a delicacy, see this.)

Steamed lobster is not a clean thing to eat.  Aside from being a gatekeeper for drawn butter, the inner flesh of these water dwelling insects is tough to access. It requires a nutcracker and pick.  The resulting messiness runs down our arms and chin(s).  Lobster is hard work!  But, since we’ve come to regard it as a delicacy, it has become acceptable to wear a bib to protect our clothing – even if doing so causes us to question our dignity!

Wearing a bib is necessary when eating some foods even if we are adults!  The same is true of our faith life.  Every follower of Jesus needs to be nourished with the very basics of the faith “food chain.”  Every believer needs to chew on and digest the scriptures and to crack open the difficult issues of faith.  This feeding is not a once in a life time thing; we don’t contract with God to be fed only once a week, once a month, or twice a year.  It is necessary that each of us be fed and nourished repeatedly so that we can grow in the faith.  Even though we’ve “graduated” from confirmation classes and attained higher things in life and in the Church, we must don our bibs and nourish our faith.

Notice that I did not say we must don our bibs and be fed!  We must still feed ourselves!  We must choose to get our hands and chins into the work of cracking open the Word, wrestling with the hard shells to reach the succulent nutrition within.  It is necessary that the juices flow from our heads to our hearts and from the faith to our hands; only as a result of having worked through the issues of faith will that stickiness pass from our hands to our everyday work and lives.  The bib represents our willingness to delve in; it does not so much protect us as serve as a symbol of our need for God’s ongoing and ever-generous grace and care.  When we don the bib, it is God who feeds and nourishes us so that we will continue to grow in faith.

This is not to say that we wear the bib all the time.  Even an infant dons a bib only to eat!  We must use those learnings, burn those “faith calories” in service to others; for that we must don the apron.  More on that next time.

08 June, 2014


A friend's post on Facebook reminded me last week that I have an anniversary today.  It's not something I think about often, but occasionally the date has happened and I'm reminded of the significance it.  More frequently, the date passes and I never notice.

It's not my wedding anniversary.  That early September date is rarely forgotten.  Although we rarely make a huge deal of it, Dan and I usually do something to commemorate that day in 1983 when we promised to God and one another that we were committed to a life long bond.  And after, now, 30 anniversaries neither of us can imagine having lived any differently.  We could manage without one other and simply choose not to do so.  Perhaps that is the secret to having lived in different homes at least 4 times in our marriage is that we  recognize and appreciate both our individuality and our unity.  But it is not my wedding anniversary.

It's also not the anniversary of that "heart incident."  That also is a September event.  It also rarely passes without my recognizing that it is THAT day.  And while that too is well behind me, that date reminds me of the fragility of life.  Things could have turned out so very differently had I continued to ignore the situation.  The decision to follow the suggestion of one who knew first hand the signs and symptoms changed me, allowed me to witness my sons growing to be men, and so much more. After, now, 10 anniversaries of that day I am a healthier person physically, spiritually, and emotionally.  But it is not the heart attack anniversary. 

I've written before about the anniversary of my baptism.  I was unaware or had forgotten that date until I recently wrapped and packed my framed baptism certificate.  It hangs on my wall central to my degrees and certificate of ordination.  I feel that my baptism is more important to me than my birth;  I had no choice to make about being born but being baptized was my decision about how I would live my life.  But it is not my baptism anniversary.

It is the anniversary of my ordination.  Most years I would not remember this date.  Most years, it does not fall on a Sunday, let alone on Pentecost Sunday.  I was not ordained on Pentecost; I was ordained on the Sunday the follows Pentecost, Trinity Sunday.  The day was memorable; the date is not.  For me, ordination was a formal recognition of what had already been; it followed a number of years of licensed ministry.  For me, ordination was the icing on the cake of my call; the inscription that offered the Church's official recognition of my call to ministry. 

Perhaps I don't routinely remember this anniversary because I believe each person who is a follower of the way of Jesus is called to ministry, is called to live a life that proclaims God's unconditional love, grace, and mercy.  Perhaps it is because I don't see ordination as being set apart but rather as being set in the midst of the community of believers as we sojourn together through this ever-changing world.

Today is the anniversary of your call to ministry too.  Pentecost is that day when all are set aflame in the breath of the Holy Spirit; the day when each is given the gifts necessary for God's work in their midst.

So, won't you celebrate with me?  Let's light some fires and change the world.

04 June, 2014

What is the Church?

I'm on an Ann Weems kick this week. As I think about how we witness to a new generation of pilgrims, as I imagine what being authentic means, as I dream about celebrating Pentecost in a new congregation, and as I imagine a new future for an established, traditional faith community, I am drawn to yet another of Ann Weem's poems.

The church of Jesus Christ is where a child brings a balloon…
is where old women come to dance . . .
is where young men see visions and old men dream dreams.
The church of Jesus Christ is where lepers come to be touched . . .
is where the blind see and the deaf hear . . .
is where the lame run and the dying live.
The church of Jesus Christ is where daisies bloom out of barren land . . .
is where children lead and wise men follow . . .
is where mountains are moved and walls come tumbling down.
The church of Jesus Christ is where loaves of bread are stacked in the sanctuary to feed the hungry . . .
is where coats are taken off and put on the backs of the naked . . .
is where shackles are discarded and kings and shepherds sit down to life together.
The church of Jesus Christ is where barefoot children run giggling in procession . . .
is where the minister is ministered unto . . .
is where the anthem is the laughter of the congregation and the offering plates are full of people.
The church of Jesus Christ is where people go when they skin their knees or their hearts . . .
is where frogs become princes and Cinderella dances beyond midnight . . .
is where judges don’t judge and each child of God is beautiful and precious.
The church of Jesus Christ is where the sea divides for the exiles . . .
is where the ark floats and the lamb lies down with the lion . . .
is where people can disagree and hold hands at the same time.
The church of Jesus Christ is where night is day . . .
is where trumpets and drums and tambourines declare God’s goodness . . .
is where lost lambs are found.
The church of Jesus Christ is where people write thank-you notes to God . . .
is where work is a holiday . . .
is where seeds are scattered and miracles grown.
The church of Jesus Christ is where home is . . .
is where heaven is . . .
is where a picnic is communion and people break bread together on their knees.
The church of Jesus Christ is where we live responsively to God’s coming . . .
even on Monday morning the world will hear . . .
an abundance of alleluias! 

                                                                               —Ann Weems

Ann Weems is a Presbyterian elder, a lecturer, and a popular poet. She is the author of Family Faith Stories, Reaching for Rainbows, Searching for Shalom, Kneeling in Bethlehem, Kneeling in Jerusalem, Psalms of Lament, and Putting the Amazing Back in Grace.  

03 June, 2014

Happy Birthday Church!

Sunday is Pentecost.
It's What?
What's that?
It's the Birthday of the Church!
Oh, you mean like the anniversary of our congregation?
No.  It's the day we celebrate God sending the Holy Spirit upon the early church.
Read all about it in Acts 2.

Then come back and read the poem here by Ann Weems.  It’s called, “Happy Birthday Church!”  [from Reaching for Rainbows, 1980]
There once was a church that had only party rooms: the Session’s Party Room, the Music Party Room, the Feasting Party Room, the Do Justice Party Room, the Love Mercy Party Room, the Touch Lepers Party Room.  In the center of the building was a large round room with an altar and a cross:  God’s Party Room.

There was in the church an air of festivity and brightness that could not be denied.  The

people outside the church pointed their fingers and shook their heads:  “Something should be done about that church.”  They were especially upset when they saw that the members wore party hats and smiles both inside and outside the church.

Other congregations came to take a look and were shocked when they saw this church having so much fun during a worship service, snapping their fingers and dancing.

“Sacrilegious,” screamed the crowd.  But the people in the church just smiled at them and went right on doing things like taking people in wheelchairs to the park and playing ball with them.

When everybody else was collecting canned goods for the poor, this church bought pizza and marched right into dingy, dirty, paint-peeling apartments and sat down to eat with the tenants.

They held picnics for the old folks home, and old men ran races while the congregation stamped their feet in applause.  It was at one of these picnics that some of the members climbed up on the roof and shouted:  “Good news!”

“Now we can get them for disturbing the peace,” said one of the outsiders.  The police arrived with sirens, ready for the arrest, and came out two hours later wearing party hats and smiles.

One Sunday afternoon, the entire congregation met at the jail and passed out flowers to the prisoners.  The following week after bread and wine and much laughter at the Lord’s table, the people went to the hospital and asked to see the dying patients.  They held their hands and mopped their brows and spoke to them of life.

“Disgraceful!” shouted the crowd.  “They must be stopped.”  So the crowd appealed to the governing body of the denomination, and this committee of respected church people went to see for themselves.

“Do you deny the charges of heresy?” asked the committee.  “do you deny that you’ve mocked the church and the Lord?”  The people of the church looked into the stern red faces and smiled at them.  They held out their hands to the committee and led them to the Birthday Cake Party Room.  There on a table sat a large cake decorated beautifully in doves descending and red flames and words that read: HAPPY BIRTHDAY, CHURCH!  The people began cutting cake and blowing up balloons and handing out party hats to the committee members.

“Wait!  Wait!” cried the chairperson.  “Can’t you take anything seriously?”

“Yes,” said the people.  “We take our commitment to the Lord very seriously indeed.”

“You don’t take it seriously at all,” interrupted the chairperson in loud voice and red face.  “You have parties and wear silly hats and blow up balloons and sing and dance and have fun.  Do you call that commitment?”

The people smiled at the chairperson and asked him if he’d like a glass of wine.  The chairperson hit his fist on the table.  “I don’t want wine, and I don’t want birthday cake.  We’re here to reprimand you.  We’re here to show you that you’re wrong.  Can’t you be serious?”

“We are,” said the people.  “We’re asking you to take communion with us.”

“With birthday cake?” screamed the chairperson.  “Outrageous!”

“Outrageous?” [asked the people] “We ask you to sit at our table and sup with us.  God gave the Holy Spirit to believers, and that is something to celebrate!  It’s an occasion for a party.  We are celebrants of the gift of Life.  We are community.  We are God’s church.  Why are your faces red when we are trying to do justice and love mercy?  Why do you shake your fists at us when we are trying to discover the hurting and begin the healing?  We are overjoyed that we can be the church, a community of people, who are many, yet one—who are different, but who walk together and welcome any who would walk with us.  When we weep there is someone to weep with us and to affirm us and to take us to a party.  When we see injustices, we must be about God’s business of freeing the oppressed.  When we are faithless, we have God’s promise of forgiveness.  Isn’t it remarkable that we can be God’s good news?  Is it any wonder we have a church full of party rooms?  There is so much love to celebrate!”

The committee stared at the people, and the people moved closer to them and put their arms around them.  The committee chairperson stepped up to the table and sliced a piece of birthday cake, took a bite, and laughed out loud.  He began slicing and passing it out.
When the wine was poured and the hands were held, the chairperson raised his glass and said,  “There is so much Love to celebrate!  Happy Birthday, Church!”