Monday, May 16, 2011

Church is New Once More

What have I learned in this class?

I've learned not only that church can happen in a hundred different ways, but that it is happening in thousands of different ways, all around the world, in ways I never dreamed of before.

I've had the opportunity to meet with many of the people in the world who are bringing new visions of church into being, in ways that are as unique as they are. And the stories told by class members of their alternative church experiences have been rich and exciting. (I love the idea of a church filled with a mix of donated comfortable couches and chairs instead of pews. Not fancy, but comfortable and home-like, with room for kids to crawl and stretch out!)

I've attended virtual Bible Study, visited the Sunshine and Anglican Cathedrals in Second Life, and become a regular participant at a recently-launched outdoor ecumenical church here in Northampton, Massachusetts called Cathedral in the Night.

The energy, talent, creativity, love, and desire to be welcoming, engaging, and inclusive that I have seen in these alternate expressions of church has been amazing! And outdoor churches are a great way to reach out to people who would never walk through the doors of a conventional church--and who might be met with suspicion if they did.

Cathedral in the Night, which offers a short service followed by a meal, feeds up to 100 people, especially later in the month when people run out of money. I think the meal is the real point of this church, although the brief worship service is as inclusive, flexible, and engaging as possible: no bulletin or hymnal, no musical instruments. We sing easy or well-known songs a capella. Prayers allow for input and the pastors will engage in a sermon dialogue if a member of the congregation starts one. It's really flexible and friendly. An offering of talents is given by people picking up and returning star and heart shaped wood pieces with words like "listening" and "love" that they will share with others during the week, so no money is collected. And the food, donated from local stores, is always great. There are usually simple sandwiches left for people to bring home. We often have guests from area churches, including local confirmation classes. I can't help but think that this is what the early church must have been like: open, spontaneous, loving, and missional.

Thank you, Julie, for this wonderful class. Don't change a thing! The talk with the Bishops was great too! And I think they enjoyed it as much as we did!

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Cathedral in the Night

I have had the pleasure of participating in worship at an outdoor church called Cathedral in the Night in Northampton, Massachusetts for three of the last four Sundays evenings.
Funded, in part, by the Episcopal Church, Cathedral in the Night was launched in January 2010. It has three components: a 5:00 p.m. Eucharist service which is followed by a meal; a Thursday evening discussion group called “Common Ground Fellowship”, which is held at a local coffee house and is geared towards students at area colleges and other young adults; and an advocacy component which works to end homelessness. I have only participated in the Sunday services as I have class on Thursday nights. I have not seen or heard anything about the advocacy component of this ministry, other than reading on their website that it exists:
The three pastors--Rev. Chris Carlisle, the Episcopal Chaplain at the University of Massachusetts; Rev.  Eric Fistler of the UCC; Rev. Stephanie Spellers of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America, and others organizers have worked hard to make worship as attractive and welcoming as possible. The church meets in the inviting space on the edge of the street in front of my Main Street UCC/ABC congregation, The First Churches of Northampton. It’s a space where street people, students, and others frequently gather to watch the world go by. Art students designed four lanterns to mark the corners of the space. The lanterns are white five-gallon buckets with fluorescent bulbs at the top and bottom and origami peace doves strung in between. The Communion table is covered with a beautifully embroidered orange cloth from Jerusalem which includes several small mirrors. Two tables set perpendicularly in front of the altar holds a long wooden cross-shaped box which is partly filled with sand and is used to hold votive candles and people’s offerings. (I’ll describe these later.) There was also a cloud, which was only used once. It was a broad, internally lit cloud-shaped "balloon" made from a patchwork of recycled shopping bags from local stores. It was suspended from poles in buckets and was designed to create the suggestion of a tabernacle. Let’s just say that the concept was better than its execution.  There are also four kerosene heat lamps to provide warmth on cold days.
The half-hour worship service opens with songs that are either taught or handed out. A time for bidding prayers is followed by a scripture reading. There is a five-minute meditation on the scripture text, which is usually geared towards persons who have struggled with addictions, homelessness, and other difficulties. This is followed by a Eucharist which includes singing and an opportunity for people to pick up wooden star or heart from a basket. Each shape has a word such as “listening”, “love, and “compassion” written on it. Everyone is encouraged to pick up an object from the basket and place it in the sand-filled cross to symbolize a gift they can share with others during the week. The service concludes with a song and a prayer inviting everyone to a meal of soup, bologna and cheese sandwiches, cake, cookies, and coffee. One night there was also cold popcorn shrimp.
Each week there have been about twenty people at the service. Most are linked to the service’s sponsoring Episcopalian, Lutheran, and UCC/ABC congregations or the local soup kitchen that provides the meals, rather than the homeless people and students the services are designed to reach. Most homeless people come after the service starts and gather around the periphery waiting for supper. Folks leading worship try to invite them to participate, with varied success. At one service a woman started singing “Were You There When They Crucified My Lord?” but only knew the first two lines. I sang with her and the rest of the group to keep the song going. On Sunday my friend John and I struck up a twenty-minute conversation with a newly-homeless Vietnam vet who broke down and wept when he described his situation. John and I walked him to the local shelter where he was planning on staying at the time he was expected to enter so he wouldn’t have to go alone. Providing a hot meal and a setting for this type of interaction seems to be where "church" happens the most at Cathedral in the Night. In Church 3.0: Upgrades for the Future of the Church, Neil Cole writes,

         "It dawned on me one day tht the Bible never
          commanded us to plant a church. When the
          disciples were sent out, they were to bring the
          kingdom (or reign) of God to place where people
          lived life" (Kindle location 1125-1127) 
Cathedral in the Night works hard to bring the reign of God to the street where people live. I cannot help but wonder how much street people were involved in the Cathedral's formation. Did the founders spend as much time working with them as they did working with student artists on the church's lights and "cloud?" Is this expression of church something that is done for street people rather than with them?

I hope the passage of time will make street people feel more at home participating in this service. In the meantime, they are getting a decent meal, being welcomed, cared for and listened to. They, along with the rest of us, are hearing the Word preached in a way that relates to their experience and we all have an opportunity to lift up our prayers, offer our gifts (and be reminded that we have gifts to offer). We are also offered the Eucharist before being fed supper. Oftentimes, people need time to feel “safe” in a new setting. Since the church is scheduled to shut down in May, at least for the summer, I fear that trust built up over the past few months will have to be rebuilt after the hiatus. Even so, I hope that, over time, Cathedral in the Night will be more successful in making homeless and other street people feel safe and included, so that it will be of even greater benefit to those it hopes to serve.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Lay Ministry

As a child, I spent the school year attending a UCC church with an ordained minister in Buffalo New York and the summer attending a tiny United Methodist Church in Wells, N.Y., a very rural community in the Adirondack Mountains which had 125 winter residents. Wells is, literally, north of Northville and beyond Hope, 40 miles from the nearest stop light.
The Wells Methodist Church had its pastor changed every two to five years. A handful of the church’s pastors were ordained. Most were lay people who were licensed pastors in the Methodist Church (the basic requirement for this is a high school diploma). The church also welcomed lay speakers. Most of the lay speakers were innocuous. There was one who was so horrific that I wanted to tear the Bible, which he was literally thumping, from his hands and drag him from the pulpit. He was shouting and raving about many things, particularly his own sinful past—which included his days as an addict and an illusion to being a murderer. He also described a wayward teenager who crashed her car outside of her home town. Her father came to the scene and heard her crying from the flaming wreck as she died, “Oh Daddy, you were right! Daddy, I’m burning in the flames of hell!” I was far more disabled then, and could not mount a serious objection. Thank God my mom had led the handful of children present off to Sunday School. After church she told me: “I hear I missed a good sermon.” I took this as a sign of the vulnerability of whoever told her this, that they had so little grounding in faith that they gratefully and unquestioningly accepted whatever was offered to them, even if it was poison.
Indeed, one of the reasons I came to seminary is that I want to save people from what I consider to be bad theology, the kind that made people I loved say things like, “My mom had a stroke. She’s paralyzed and blind. We must be praying the wrong prayers”, and “When I get to heaven, I’ll be sad because my mother won’t be there because she hasn’t accepted Jesus Christ as her Lord and Savior.”
Thank God that the Episcopalians have apparently had a clearer vision and sounder process for equipping indigenous people for a mission-focused ministry in rural settings than I experienced in the Methodist Church. To be fair, there were several licensed ministers there who did their best and who did no harm, although they never challenged anyone to do anything missional except, perhaps, participate in the CROP Walk. The church has an ordained minister now, who also pastors a church in a neighboring community, what the Methodist call a “two church charge.” The church had been so badly served by their previous licensed pastor that they had lost half their worshiping congregation. I don’t know if they’ll survive.
Kudos to Roland Allen , Bill Gordon, Wes Frensdorff, and the many others who have helped create a vibrant, missional, lay ministry in the Episcopal Church. I hope and pray the Methodists are learning from your example.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Mission-Shaped Living

I’ve thought a lot about “Mission shaped church” (as opposed to church-shaped mission) since taking my first class with Christopher Duraisingh in January, 2010. 

Being Church in the 21st Century, particularly the readings in the past two weeks have helped me expand my vision of mission-shaped living.

The way I live my life in every moment of every day is my answer to God’s call. I’m no slouch, but the people and groups I have encountered in this course make me realize that I could do so much more, here and now. 

I used to think that mission was a both/and: what I am doing now AND what I hope to do in the future as a pastor. What if what I plan to do in the future doesn’t enter into it? What if it’s entirely about how I live in each successive moment, living as if this moment is all the ministry I will ever have?  It isn’t about “doing” in the future, it’s about what I do and encounter every day, and, for me at least, letting go of anxieties and fears large and small. As Barbara Brown Taylor says, “[T]he lives God is calling us to are the ones that we are living right now.” Or, as Nelvin Vos writes, “Ministry isn’t always what we go and do. It’s about what we do as we go.” (Both these quotes are found on the “Quotable Quotes" page of the “Ministry in Daily Life” website:

This makes me feel better about spending so much time listening to Japan’s 24 hour News Channel on my iPad. As the Jewish proverb states, “Joy shared is doubled. Sorrow shared is halved.”  Being “present” and praying is the best I can do for now, sending messages of support, along with providing financial support the people of Japan through my local church, and supporting them in other ways.

I joined SecondLife and made a avatar, but I get stuck when I try to go to worship. I left my avatar in the SecondLife Sancturay, but I can’t remember how to reconnect with her there.  I walk haltingly  in SecondLife.  It’s kind of a kick to be walking. I don’t think I can buy myself a wheelchair there and I wouldn’t want to spend the money on it if I could. I’ll try to attend worship at  SecondLife on Saturday. If I can’t figure out how to sit down or talk, I hope my presence won't be a distraction.

I had much better luck going to Cathedral in the Night, a new ecumenical ministry to street people in my community of Northampton, Massachusetts. The group began meeting in March  in the welcoming  front yard of my church. I was so glad I was there. Perhaps I’ll become a “regular.” I led the group in singing “Where You There When They Crucified My Lord?” after a woman started it who couldn’t remember anything past the second line of the first verse. Being able to jump in and help them finish the song felt like mission to me.

Studying and writing this post are mission. Is letting myself go to sleep so I can study, write, and be strong for God’s future also mission? Maybe I should not conceive of my objective as ordained ministry. Maybe it’s ministering into God’s unfolding future, which may include ordained ministry. Maybe if I simply do my part in this moment, the rest will fall into place. It’s like the old saying. “Be careful over pennies and the dollars will take care of themselves.”

In case you haven't seen it, Wayne Schwab and Elizabeth Hall’s Book, “When the Members are the Missionaries  will be helpful in working with churches, as the second part is about becoming a mission-shaped church.You can get a free copy at:

In closing, here’s one of my favorite hymns about “moment by moment mission:

Fill Thou my life, O Lord my God, 
Fill every part with praise,
That my whole being may proclaim  
Thy being and Thy ways.

Praise in the common things of life,
Its going out and in;
Praise in each duty and each deed,
However small and mean.

Fill every part of me with praise;
Let all my being speak
Of Thee and of Thy love, O Lord,
Poor though I be, and weak.

So shall each fear, each fret, each care
Be turned into a song,
And every winding of the way
The echo shall prolong;

So shall no part of day or night
From sacredness be free;
But all my life, in every step
Be fellowship with Thee.

-        Horatius Bonnar, 1886, from Hymns of Faith and Hope
Grace and peace to you, dear friends, and much love. I look forward to seeing you in class. 



Thursday, February 17, 2011

Where Real Church meets Real Life

There are so many wonderful Fresh Expressions of church all around us today. As I continued to read Ancient Faith, Future Mission, I felt like a kid on a storybook Christmas morning, unwrapping one bright expression of church after another.
I’m looking forward to meeting Stephanie Miller and the members of the Leadership Team from The Crossing @ St. Paul’s Cathedral in Boston. Having lived and worked in Boston for 18 years, I know the church’s neighborhood and the Boston Common well. It contains quite the mix of people with money and power, people who live on the street, and everyone in between. I’ll have to explore the web links mentioned in the text, the band U2 and U2Charists. I’m such an old fogey that I don’t think I could name a single U2 song!
I laughed as I read Abbot Stuart Burns' “Concluding Thoughts” in Ancient Faith, Future Mission (Ancient Faith, Future Mission, p. 173): “Remember, the disciples were with Jesus day in, day out, for three years, and still they persisted in getting hold of the wrong end of every stick Jesus gave them.” He continues, “It’s no wonder the genera­tions that have followed have been slow to grasp his meaning and have often mistakenly taken his metaphors literally.” It seems to me that many have, likely, mistakenly taken much that Jesus wanted to be taken literally as metaphor, essential things like “Love your enemies” and “Love one another”!
I agree with Burns’ words, “It takes time – a lot of time – to get to the point where we can allow God to be who God is, rather than what we would like God to be.” I cannot help but wonder about Burns next thoughts: “This God, who meets us in our neighbour, chal­lenges us to recognize the sacredness of other people, and espe­cially those we find difficult, and to receive them as gift.” (Ibid, p. 175). While I think Burns’ statement is generally true, I also believe that there are people who are so scarred by life that they become highly destructive of life around them, including themselves—people that M Scott Peck would describe as “evil.” I can love the one potentially evil person I believe I’ve personally encountered, and grieve for the destruction in his life that brought him to this point, but I find it hard to receive him as a gift or my encounter with him as an encounter with God. Likewise, the behavior of the drunk driver who killed my 19-year-old cousin Ricky was so contemptible in the years before, during, and after the accident one could argue that he met Peck’s criteria for being diagnosed as evil. I just can’t see that Rick’s encounter with him was a gift or an encounter with God.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011


I loved being introduced this week to Church of the Loving Shepherd, a church located on a farm (what a lovely place to be) and exploring the website for the church’s Camp Bournleyf, which serves children and youth with developmental disabilities.
I also appreciated the opportunity to learn about the International Council of Community Churches, of which Church of the Loving Shepherd is a part. This denomination is new to me. It reminds me a great deal of my own denomination, the United Church of Christ, except it doesn’t appear to have nearly as much centralized activity. Their mission is even the same: Jesus’ words “That they may all be one.” The sermon on Ruth, “Skeletons in the Closet,” by Rev. Martin C. Singley III, which won the ICCC’s 2010 Homiletics Award, concludes with these words:
“And finally, learn from the story of Ruth that the community is strengthened when we welcome strangers and take care of people others exclude. That’s one of the reasons I so strongly believe in this Community Church concept that refuses to close in on itself and to care exclusively for its own needs without regard to others, but chooses to open its arms and doors to all who would come.
          I believe in a church that welcomes Moabites! So go this week, and claim your identity as a beautiful child of God! Live out that beauty by looking up to and loving others! And work hard to help us be the kind of church that understands that even skeletons in the closet have names like Ruth.
Thanks be to God!”
The sermon can be downloaded from
I was also eager to learn about the Open Door Mission @ Garden Court, another ICCC community, which is part of a facility used by practitioners of a variety of alternative therapies, another wonderful setting for a church!  The mission has a wide range of offerings, including programs of interest to people in recovery and others, such as their 11th Step Meeting. The website’s invitation to their Contemplative Holy Eucharist, found at is “Come experience this alternative form of worship and like Elijah, be prepared to hear the still small voice of God speak to your heart and your soul.” This sounds enticing indeed.
I was delighted that Pastor Carol closed the letter on her home page,, with the words “Blessings & Namaste.” “Namaste,” as you may know, is the universal Hindu greeting meaning, “The God in me greets the God in you.” It recognizes that there is that which is divine in us and in everyone we meet. What better way to greet friend and stranger alike?
Finally, I was excited to explore the link to Rev. Martin Singley’s webpage, I found the link posted on ICCC’s Facebook wall,!/group.php?gid=34281278581&v=wall, (which I notice has not been written on since 11/13/10):
Singley said,
Thirty-four years of ministry have changed me a lot! ….Today, a simple theology that centers on the life and teachings of Jesus is more than challenging enough to shape and empower my ministry. For me, Christianity is all about being gripped by a grace that leads to loving neighbor as self. Everything else is window-dressing.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

If I could live in the woods...

I don’t know what I’m doing here, on this page, er, blog, I mean. I do know I love walking in the woods, especially with Fred and Barry. Barry and I often do it together. So I thought, while this page is under construction, I would share a couple of pictures from our woodland adventures with you. The snow scene was snapped by Fred as I’m not equipped for extreme winter travel. Spring, come soon!!!