This the second in my series, The Puzzle We Call Faith.
With regular frequency, visitors to this congregation share how moving they find our ritual of sharing Joys and Concerns. It doesn’t matter that they don’t even know us. I think this is because as we share portions of our individual or collective stories; the Spirit of God becomes more real and accessible.
I said a couple of weeks ago that one of the purposes of worship and community life is to shape us. In worship, in prayer, and community – stories guide us and give us a glimpse of God’s mysterious and wonderfully creative presence.
I’ve titled this fall series the “The Puzzle We Call Faith.” Over the course of the fall, I’ll be sharing pieces of the puzzle as I’ve experienced as one of our pastors. By the time I’ve finished this series, the puzzle may have more shape, but it will not be finished. It never is.
Today, I want to speak to the deep honor I’ve had to hear and carry so many of our personal and congregational stories. These include stories that have emerged from within our midst and stories that impact us from the outside. In my experience, the stories run the gamut of life’s reality. They include stories of transformation and struggle, deep pain and incredible joy, surprising healing and eventually, salvation.
Some of our stories are more public, while others are personal and private. At times, it is necessary to retell the public ones because they contribute to our shaping as a community. Others are so tender they can never be repeated.
One of the public stories I cherish centers around my predecessor, The Rev. Tim Kehl. When I arrived in 1999, the congregation had done serious work around conflict mediation, healing and honest communication. The presenting issue in that conflict was Tim, and aspects of her behavior that resulted in him being let go. However, those who engaged in the healing process discovered what families always discover; the presenting issue is usually masking other, more deeply imbedded dynamics.
I’ve told almost every new member class since arriving how impressed I was with the work this congregation did between Tim’s leaving and my arrival (a period of three years). I was deeply blessed to enter a thoughtful, intentional, hardworking and kindhearted congregation. You presented yourself as a congregation that took seriously your own role in creating a sacred space for faith and hope to thrive. A congregation that valued it’s pastors but didn’t shirk it’s own responsibility to incarnate the faith you proclaim.
And yet, there was residue. There were early situations where I said or did something that was misunderstood, that provoked painful memories of a previous time. The fact that it took several years before I wasn’t called Tim after worship (as in “Great sermon, Tim!) reminded me over and over again how important his ministry had been here, regardless of its painful ending.
It was deeply moving then, to welcome him back into the sanctuary in the fall of 2007 as we celebrated the congregation’s 50th anniversary with a party and an evening of insight from 3 of our former senior pastors, as well as Doug Pierce, our long-term interim. I must also acknowledge that Tim has never been anything but gracious and supportive of me personally; for this I am ever thankful.
As part of his talk, Tim offered both an apology and a statement of gratitude for the way his ministry ended at ORUCC in 1995. He didn’t belabor the point, he didn’t co-opt the evening, but he also didn’t let the occasion pass without speaking to the elephant in the room for those who’d been through that rough season with him 12 years earlier. It was a moment of grace. It revealed the hard spiritual work of this congregation, the profound grace of forgiveness and healing. It demonstrated a church in a new place, informed by and dependent upon the hard work of the past. I was honored to observe it.
Another public story emerged when we invited a retired UCC Pastor and his wife (John and Susie McFadden) to spend a morning with us reflecting on ministry among the aging, especially those who were losing their memories. In his sermon, John challenged us to move beyond thinking that “we are because we think.” Rather, he suggested, “we are” because we love, because we can be in relationship, and because we can know joy. Even those with dementia can love, relate and rejoice. He focused on those with memory loss, but I thought he was speaking to all of us about all of our relationships. The room was filled with all ages. Squirrely elementary kids who teach us about grace through their energy and questions. Older adults grieving the loss of spouses and children; who remind us that through suffering we grow in faith. Middle age couples, some holding back the words of anger or confusion or fatigue that were spewed even in the car on the way to church; who remind us that we are not defined by our worst moments.
But as I sat in the aisle, I was asked a young adult with Down’s syndrome to leave worship and join him in the Romero room to console his girlfriend – also with Down’s syndrome. The two of them were struggling to communicate about important things in their love and their relationship. I had never left worship like that, but having been challenged to recognize that grace comes through connection, love and laughter – I did join them for a few minutes. I don’t think I added any words that were helpful; although I do hope my presence was comforting.
For me, the whole morning – with a challenging sermon on a pervasive reality in so many of our families, the lived experience of honoring the complexity of our congregation, and the pathos that came from sharing about an important and painful topic – typified good church. Church that holds and shapes us to be more compassionate and kind. Church that pulls us to reflect on our assumptions and unexamined attitudes. Church that wrestles with an issue that matters. I came away, as I know many of you did, with a deep sense that I was a better person for being here that morning.
I am also grateful for some of the more hidden and personal stories.
I remember several young children facing incredibly challenging treatments and surgeries. Sitting in rooms with tubes and monitors and nurses and IV drips, they were unable to know then, or ever really, the angst and fear felt by their young parents. They could not know the sense of foreboding, mystery, wonder or despair that filled both the waking and sleeping moments of their mostly powerless parents. Powerless, except in the way they surrounded themselves with loving family, friends, and prayer. Powerful indeed as they leaned on community in a time of deep challenge.
And I remember stories of salvation, told quietly and in hushed voices.
- Of acting upon one’s inner knowing of substance abuse that had caused physical and spiritual exhaustion.
- Of inner liberation that came through the act of quietly getting out of one’s seat in this room to come up for a healing prayer. Not knowing why. Not knowing what kind of healing they needed, still they came.
- I remember frightened and confused stories of infidelity and the pain of facing one’s sin and one’s partner with a new kind of truthfulness.
- Or the salvation that comes through acting upon the long held belief that the relationship needed to end, acting upon the belief that liberation will come only in loving oneself and one’s potential enough say no to a fractured or dead relationship. Saying no so they could say yes.
- Of young middle school girls, armed with information gleaned through our OWL class, taking action and critical steps to ensure their safety, their humanity and ultimately their healing from specific abuse or the abusive culture they’d experienced at school and in the neighborhood.
Stories of so many of us facing the angst of a job that feels like a trap or post schooling career paths that feel confusing. Tears and shaky voices confessing mental illness, attempts at suicide or the challenge of caregiving for a loved one. I was even at the receiving end of an amazing projectile of vomit from one of the sweetest old ladies I’ve ever known who lost her lunch the minute I pulled a chair up to her hospital bed.
Psalm 139 is a beloved psalm, one that is worth reading often, because it speaks a deep and profound truth.
O Lord, you have searched me and known me.
You know when I sit down and when I rise up; you discern my thoughts from far away. You search out my path and my lying down, and are acquainted with all my ways. Even before a word is on my tongue…If I say, “Surely the darkness shall cover me, and the light around me become night,” even the darkness is not dark to you; the night is as bright as the day, for darkness is as light to you.
For it was you who formed my inward parts; you knit me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.
If we are open to it, life in a faith community has the power to remind us of God’s deep and every present love. It has the power to reinforce how beautiful we are in a world that constantly tears us down. There is so much bad religion in the world today; so many versions of Christianity that seek to break people down, oppress or limit the work of the Spirit. Not long ago, a young adult who grew up in this church experienced the arbitrary and capricious dogma of a church in relationship to their extended family. After being dumbfounded and hurt, they said to their parents – ‘do you see why we’ve given up on the institutional church?”
Have you listened to so called Christian evangelicals dismiss the outrageousness of sexual violence? Have you read what some Catholic bishops do in equating homosexuality and pedophilia? How easy is it to find something disgraceful in institutional religion?
In the face of such disappointment, or even outrage, we come here in hopes of finding something transcendent and transforming. We come, I think, to remember and reclaim the sacred wonder that exists within each one of us. We come, not to save the whole world, but to love and be loved locally. To rub shoulders with one another in the midst of making difficult choices in our lives. We come to reclaim love for ourselves and for our brothers and sisters because deep down we want to believe in the sacredness of life, despite evidence to the contrary.
Lutheran pastor and author, Nadia Bolz Weber, in a refreshingly honest statement, tells how in every new member class in her church she tells people “I hope we disappoint you. I hope that our imperfections show through. Only then will we experience real community.”
We are all beautiful, mysterious and complex.
We know life will find ways of telling us otherwise.
We know the culture will fail to honor our beauty.
We come to be shaped, to be reminded, to be inspired and most of all, to love. People of faith – for all our shortcomings and doubts — that love matters. It is that love that helps us give heart and soul to a world crying in pain.