How Church Has Shaped a Life (Winton Boyd) 12.30.18

I’m not one who fears for the future of the wider church.  It’s my sense that amidst the dramatic changes and declines Christendom has seen in recent decades, the Spirit of God is alive among us birthing new seeds for faith-based communities that will continue to offer something to our culture and to their attendees.

audio version of How Church Has Shaped a Life

When I finish up my position as pastor of Orchard Ridge UCC on January 6, it will end my tenure of working in churches that began in 1981.  Except for a couple of years in the late 80’s when I was in seminary and living at a retreat center, I’ve been employed at least part time by a church my whole adult life.  I’ve been an ordained pastor since 1991 and a regular preaching pastor since 1998.  Both the institutional church and I have evolved and adapted immensely in that time.  I’ve had the privilege of working in UCC, Methodist, and Presbyterian churches; inner city, downtown and suburban churches.  I’ve worked with amazing colleagues, from whom I have received ‘grace upon grace’ as the gospel of John says.  I’ve become less doctrinaire and more attached to mystery as time has gone on.  My bookshelves have fewer works by theologians and more by poets these days.

I’m not one who fears for the future of the wider church.  It’s my sense that amidst the dramatic changes and declines Christendom has seen in recent decades, the Spirit of God is alive among us birthing new seeds for faith-based communities that will continue to offer something to our culture and to their attendees.

As I move into new forms of ministry and move from leading worship to attending worship led by someone else, from heading up a community of faith to being a regular participant of some future, as yet unknown congregation, I thought it would be fun to explore how church has shaped my life.   And how these gifts shape the prayers I have for this and every church.

Anything Can Be A Metaphor For The Journey Of Faith. 

You may have seen the tradition of sending a brown paper bag home with children in the church and asking them to bring something back for the pastor to use in the Time for Children.  Kids can bring anything they want – a favorite toy, a family heirloom, and unused item from the refrigerator.  The task of the pastor is to make up a children’s moment on the spot!  As an activity, it is a perfect illustration of how metaphors abound in our life of faith.

As followers of Jesus, we’ve inherited a Biblical treasure trove of images for God and the life of faith.  We have access to centuries of music that offer additional metaphors.  Each the these support the practice of finding metaphors for sacredness and holiness in all of life.  As part of multiple congregations across many decades, I’ve loved exploring all kinds of images and ideas that point to the unnamable mystery and sacred divinity all around us.  I have loved sharing and probing those metaphors with you.  Walter Brueggemann, the preeminent Old Testament scholar says that “more metaphors give more access to God. One can work one metaphor awhile, but you can’t treat that as though that’s the last word. You’ve got to move and have another and another.” (OnBeing interview, December 2018).

So, I pray for a rich metaphorical language and a vibrant exchange of metaphorical ideas to keep hearts alive with the movement of God’s spirit in the present day.

If Prayer Is ‘Paying Attention’ Than All Life Is Prayer.

In her poem, ‘Summer Day’ Mary Oliver writes:

I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.

I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down

into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,

how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,

which is what I have been doing all day.

Tell me, what else should I have done?

If this is true, then all of us have the invitation to live prayerfully, soulfully.  Being a pastor allows me to explore the practice of putting words to this discipline of paying attention, but prayer is not rooted in articulate words.  Prayer as paying attention means noticing how the disruptions and interruptions of our lives can open us to grace, insight and reflection; as well as new understandings that we didn’t plan, expect or maybe even want.   Formal prayers can thus be seen as more formal ways of being attentive and open to what’s happening in our life and doing so with a spirit of gratitude, humility and possibility.

My prayer for the church is that we nurture this discipline and practice of attentiveness, what the Buddhists call ‘mindfulness.’  The more we realize that prayer is really quite basic, the more accessible the spirit of the Divine will be in all of our lives.  The language of prayer has never been, nor should it ever be, the property of theologically trained people.  May we in the church pay attention, may we pray.

There’s A Song For That

No one would ever confuse me with being a musician.  I love to sing, I love to listen to music, and I especially love listening to new music.  I wouldn’t for a minute expect us all to like the same kind of music or the same artists or the same instruments.  My life in the church has offered me the privilege of steeping myself in one of the church’s great contributions to our lives – music.  I know music is the language of the spirit for many of you.  Whether it is church music or the music of your youth or some other kind of music, many of us are deeply moved by its power.

“Ah, music,” Dumbledore said in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, wiping his eyes. “A magic beyond all we do here!” A language for the soul that resides deeper than words.

The lyrics for the hymn When in Our Music God is Glorified, state, “how often, making music, we have found a new dimension in the world of sound, as worship moved us to a more profound Alleluia.” With words, without words, with accompaniment and a capella, as we sing together, as we enjoy the creations of others.

My prayer for the church is that the role of music in all its forms would only increase, providing access for more and more of us to the power it has to shape our spiritual life, to inspire us to work for justice, and to call us to a deeper self-reflection about what we can do and be in the world.

We Offer The World Hope If We Do Not Become Obsessed Or Engulfed By The Present Cultural Moment.

Maria Popova, a prolific and insightful 33 year old blogger, writes that when she was growing up in Bulgaria, a great point of national pride was that an old Bulgarian folk song had sailed into space aboard the 1977 Voyager spacecraft.  Among the Voyager’s many missions was something called the Golden Record — a time-capsule of the human spirit encrypted in binary code on a twelve-inch gold-plated copper disc, containing greetings in the fifty-four most populist human languages and one from the humpback whales, 117 images of life on Earth, and a representative selection of our planet’s sounds, from an erupting volcano to a kiss to Bach — including a powerful Bulgarian folk song, The Sunflower Fields Of Bulgaria.

Bulgaria is an old country — fourteen centuries old, five of which were spent under Ottoman yoke. This song, sung by generations of shepherdesses, encodes in its stunning vocal harmonies both the suffering and the hope with which people lived daily during those five centuries. Carl Sagan, who envisioned the Golden Record, had precisely that in mind — he saw the music selection as something that would say about us what no words or figures could ever say.  Put another way, the record’s objective was to mirror what is best of humanity back to itself in the middle of the Cold War, at a time when we seemed to have forgotten who we are to each other and what it means to share this fragile, symphonic planet.

She writes that

“in the cosmic blink of our present existence it is worth keeping the Voyager in mind as we find our capacity for perspective constricted by the stranglehold of our cultural moment.  I don’t think it is possible to contribute to the present moment in any meaningful way while being wholly engulfed by it. It is only by stepping out of it, by taking a telescopic perspective, that we can then dip back in and do the work which our time asks of us.”  (https://www.brainpickings.org/?s=telescopic+view)

Today, more than ever in my life, we are tempted to become obsessed with the politics of the moment.  Another gift of our faith tradition is a history that goes back centuries of women and men who found strength and courage in more difficult times; whose faith transcended the pain or tragedy of their present moment.

My prayer for the church is that we recognize the self-centeredness of thinking our present moment is the most important in human history; that we live and pray from a ‘telescopic’ perspective.

Life Includes Suffering And There Is Beauty In That

I used to tell my children they could do nothing so bad that I would be surprise or overwhelmed.  In my job, I said, I’ve seen it all.  Every level of human beauty and all manner of human stupidity and sinfulness.  In more recent years, I’ve come to believe that any of us, if we are alive and if we pay attention (i.e. pray), we recognize that life is always more complicated than a news headline suggests.

Relationships and personal choices and human movements all have qualities of power and suffering.  Hope and beauty do not arise from a perfect life, they arise from an honest life.  If God is in all the details, then God is in all of the details.  The life of faith, the ministry of Jesus, the power of God emerges not from the ability to put all sin and suffering away, but from the willingness to look for truth and creativity and connection amidst the suffering.  Our resistance to accepting suffering as a part of life only diminishes our ability to see life in its fullest.

My prayer for the church is the courage to face suffering together, to ritualize our learnings from suffering, to praise the Holy who stands beside us in particular moments of our lives.

Death Is Not To Be Feared

In the course of my lifetime the question of death and grace has evolved immensely.  In the churches of my youth and young adulthood, death’s welcome was conditioned upon a specific set of beliefs and confessions of faith in Jesus.  Over time, I’ve shifted from lifting up such requirements to getting into heaven to relaxing into a mysterious but real trust that when this earthly life ends, we will be held in love and strength by forces and realities far more magical than whatever images we may concoct of the life ‘hereafter.’  Being in a church community has given me exposure to the many ways people live into that trust and anticipate that grace.  Because so many of the faithful people in my life have died before me, I’ve been exposed to the power and beauty of honoring, celebrating and pondering death.

My prayer is that the church would focus less on the specifics of what awaits us and more on the Presence that welcomes us in that transition.

Space Matters

I was recently asked by a colleague what it would be like to actually walk out of the building on my last Sunday.  For some reason, in that moment, I reflected on the power of space in my own life of faith.  Every church I’ve ever known has dealt with space in one way or another.  Erecting a new building, shoring up an inner-city building, refurbishing an historic and artistic building, remodeling the entire interior of the church.  I realize more and more that while different churches celebrate different aspects of spirituality through their space, vibrant ones realize that the intentional use of space is an important part of the life of faith.  It could be a cathedral or a small rural church, but attention to detail and care and thoughtfulness are part of what opens the door for transcendence and beauty in our lives.

When we remodeled this building in 2010, one of the images that guided me was the hope that we could create a space that intentionally and beautifully welcomed friend and stranger alike; rather than space that had the feel of a back-door mudroom with clutter and recycling and old brooms, etc.

Somewhere around the year 2001, the late David Lyons, former pastor at First United Methodist said that congregations that worship in a sanctuary where they see one another’s faces (rather than just the back of one another’s heads) stay around 20% longer.  I have no idea how someone researched that fact, but I think it is another reminder that being intentional about how we use, what we put in, and how we care for the sacred spaces of our lives matters.

My prayer is that today’s church takes seriously the creation of sacred space as an aid to fostering a deepened spirituality.

WE Are Indeed The Body Of Christ. 

Early in my career, a Catholic priest I worked with in Minneapolis reminded me that in the Catholic tradition, the body of Christ is the meal at the Eucharist, the host, or the wafer.  All worship is centered around that ritual.

In the Protestant tradition, the people are the body of Christ and thus worship and church life are centered around community.  Seen this way, being part of the body of Christ offers all of us a chance to know and love people that wouldn’t otherwise be in our lives.  It offers us a chance to experience the grace known in one another; a grace that at times is challenged by our humanness.  But if we can stick with one another, it is a grace that is real and grounded in the way God is working in and among us through ordinary means.

I am aware that to have spent a whole adulthood as part of a church is more and more unusual.  I am aware that many around us seek to grow spiritually through means other than Christian churches.  But, I remain hopeful that as we who seek to follow Jesus seek to live with open and mindful hearts, grace-filled and hopeful spirits, goodness will continue to come to us and to the world through us.  May we live with trust this week and this year.  Amen.

Comments

  1. Hi,
    Winton, I heard you were leaving I was astonished and happy you get to move on.
    I with you and your wife and family well.
    Take care.
    Gods with you and thank you for being there.
    Liisa Surrarrer

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