Posted by: jaimemwsanders | July 27, 2013

Sustainable Mission

If we think, as I do, that the mission of church is to discern what God is doing and join in, there is by definition always opportunities for ministry.

But our particular church may not be well equipped for its current missional opportunities.  This might be due to many factors.  Maybe the people in it don’t see the surrounding community and its needs as something they should care about.  I think this is a lot more rare than we might assume.  We might assume that if a congregation is not engaged in mission in its community, they need more vision or compassion.  I think more often they need some way to see a way in which the resources they perceive they have can connect with the needs they see Jesus as caring about. 

What resources might a congregation have?  What resources does a congregation need to engage in sustainable mission?

 A congregation’s principle resource is its people.  Its paid staff, if any, including the priest, but even more its laity.  It is the laity who tutor children and staff food banks and lead Vacation Bible School and arrange flowers and sing in choirs and show up on Sunday to be renewed for caring for ailing parents and build houses and pledge money to support the mission of the church. 

So what makes a congregation’s laity a renewing rather than depleting resource? 

Some of the factors are internal, and those are what we ministers tend to focus on.  Is the worship God-centered and life-giving?  When people are ill, do they know they are loved and cared for?  Is conversation respectful?  Do people have a clear sense of mission?  Is faith shared and nourished with appropriate education? 

But some of the factors are external.  What is happening to the city, county and neighborhood around the church?  If family-wage jobs are disappearing, if the schools are in trouble, it is highly unlikely that the church will attract those elusive young families no matter how good the Vacation Bible School.  If a freeway cuts the church building off from the neighborhood in which its congregants live, those already committed may take the extra trouble to get there, but their new neighbors are unlikely to join them. 

Median income has shrunk in the past 10 years in every county in Western Oregon, and over a third of people spend more than 30% of their income just on housing.  When we teach that church membership involves tithing, we may increase the strength of discipleship of the people in the pews – but we may also be reinforcing the belief of those outside that they can’t afford to belong to a church.

Some of the factors are internal but difficult to change.  It is hard to change the words we use to worship with, but it is easier to change the words than it is to change the pews, and easier to change the pews than to change the layout of the sanctuary or the physical relationship of the sanctuary to the education rooms.  Few restaurants that exist today have the same physical layout and aesthetic as they did in 1955.  The ones that survive have invested in physical maintenance and upgrading.  They employ architects and interior designers.  But we somehow think we shouldn’t have to invest in the physical renewal of our faith places of hospitality.  If we put on a coat of paint, or replace a roof, it is a major issue – and the paint color is chosen by a committee rather than a professional. Perhaps the astounding thing is not that some of our churches are failing, but that any are surviving! 

Some of the external factors are evident now in their effects on sustainable mission.  But bigger ones may be coming.  Many of our churches here in Oregon were built in the 1950’s and 1960’s, as part of the expanding auto culture.   They were built when electricity was cheap and global warming was unheard of.  As we look at the physical resources for the church’s mission, we need to think about not only how people get around today but how they are likely to be getting around in 2040.  Are we investing in buildings accessible by light rail?  Pedestrian and bicycle routes?

I have confidence that God’s mission cannot be derailed by the imperfections of any human institution.  But I don’t think we get any guarantee that any particular church will be part of the future of that mission.  Like relay races, the batons will be passed to the organizations that have the resources to carry the mission forward.  Whether my church will be one of those depends in part, I believe, on decisions we make now with the resources we have.

Posted by: jaimemwsanders | June 29, 2013

leading and following

I wouldn’t have expected a business school professor to teach a tango lesson, but that is what happened at the Kellogg School last week.  No, we didn’t get dressed up, and we didn’t actually reach tango-ing, but we put hands on our partner’s shoulders and practiced leading and following.  The epiphany for me was the difference between “following,” and “anticipating.”  Following takes a heck of a lot of trust, so I prefer to anticipate.  While pretending to follow, I am trying to guess where the leader will want to go next.  True following, the professor explained, requires being ready at any time to move in any direction.

When I came to St. Mary’s I thought I knew what my job here would be.  I would be the pivot priest, taking the congregation into being able to imagine a multigenerational, multilingual future.  Actually taking them there would be someone else’s job: someone who is younger, and knows Spanish, and has experience with family and children’s ministry.  God, I thought, would call me in a few years to another congregation which would use my cultural background.

That isn’t what has happened.  St. Mary’s has changed faster than I thought would be possible, and I am still here.  God listens to prayers, but not to direction.

At the end of the tango lesson, when I realized that I had been trying to anticipate God, and that instead I need to learn to follow, I started to cry.  Trust is hard.  Letting go of expectations is hard.  But I have to trust that God sees gifts in me that I don’t see – gifts that aren’t matured yet.  That this old, over-educated, Anglo woman can learn to tango.

Posted by: jaimemwsanders | April 7, 2012

In Between

I keep expecting life to be like books, with a beginning, a middle, and an end.  Instead they are all middle.  Stories make arbitrary decisions about where to begin and end.  By focusing on only one little bit or problem – who will Elizabeth Bennett marry? – they create an ending.  In my former profession, I had the experience of beginning, middle and end because I only saw a small part of the story.  A corporation was trying to buy another company, for example.  I didn’t come into the story until a certain point, and left after the transaction was completed.  If I was involved with the client again, it was for another story.  The tidy plot was an illusion created by my limited vision.  What would the story of Pride and Prejudice look like if seen from Elizabeth’s father’s perspective?  It wouldn’t start with Mr. Darcy coming to town, and wouldn’t end with the pairing.

Most of church life seems to be “in between.”  We artificially create stories for purposes of OTM narratives, or resumes or sharing at clergy conferences.  But the “old” is never past, and the “new” is never fully here.  On Palm Sunday St. Mary’s was fuller than usual, and with new families.  But Maundy Thursday, and Good Friday, the faithful attenders were older, English-speakers, fewer.  The new identity is, like the Reign of God, “already and not yet.”  I need to be patient, valuing the old while welcoming the new.

Posted by: jaimemwsanders | April 3, 2012

Will any sermon do?

Some of my parishioners watch services and preachers on TV.  One told me how much she liked a (young, male) preacher because “he is so good looking, and he always says just what you want to hear.”  Another frequently tells me what the Pope said in his daily homily.  I feel frustrated and inadequate sometimes.  How much easier my ancestors had it, not competing with Roman pomp or charismatic televangelists! Their poor congregations had to put up with the sermons they were given – however dry, or long, or boring!

Sunday, though, one parishioner told me that his lady friend had been watching a Palm Sunday sermon on TV, and “I didn’t like it.”  “Not everyone believes the same thing we do.”  YES!  Sometimes all the years of Episcopal preaching and teaching have had an effect.   There are differences of theology. Content matters.

Posted by: jaimemwsanders | March 27, 2012

Fantasy vs. reality

Early on in this blog, I wrote about my fantasy of “Afternoon Tea with the Vicar.”  I imagined that people in Woodburn would share my Anglophile tendencies and reading material.  WRONG.  Afternoon tea never really took off at St. Mary’s.  The reality has been far more interesting.  I could never have imagined hundreds of people gathering on the lawn to eat, dance, and play a traditional ball game from Michoacan, Mexico.  I could not have imagined a young acolyte who also is an Aztec dancer.    God has a broader imagination than I do – I am just along for the ride!

Posted by: jaimemwsanders | June 4, 2011

Fight the good fight – what?

One of the gifts of serving a congregation that is at least a generation older than me, and without a choir, is that I am forced to scour the hymnal in search of hymns that I don’t know but that they might. My present theory is that if a hymn in the 1982 Episcopal Hymnal is ALSO in BOTH the 1940 Episcopal Hymnal AND in the Ecumenical Consultation on Hymnody list (found in the back of the organist’s edition of Service music), there is a reasonable chance that my parishioners will know it. So tomorrow we are singing “Fight the good fight with all thy might.”

What? Isn’t this militaristic? Certainly that is what I would assume from the title. Christians fighting seems way too much like the so-called Christian social ideologues.

But the lyrics are about “lay hold on life,” and “run the straight race.” Isn’t this the pilgrimage/life journey metaphor that we boomer labyrinth-walkers are so fond of, but expressed in language of an earlier generation? The epistle for tomorrow, 1 Peter 4:12-14, 5:6-11, is written in the context of painful life and casting anxiety on God. My parishioners aren’t suffering persecution; but living with a family member with dementia no less requires courage and casting anxiety on God. Choosing to open our eyes to the injustice and economic pain of our community, and to try to do something to help rather than retreat to the magic never-never-land of shopping malls requires courage, strength, and trust in God.

So tomorrow we will sing Hymnal 1982 Number 552. Or at least the organist will play it, and we will see if anyone sings. And maybe some people in the congregation, at least, will gain the strength to once again “get up and do what needs to be done.”

Posted by: jaimemwsanders | March 13, 2009

Bubbling Mud

Last summer I went to Yellowstone Park, and saw geysers.  Some of them shot up rapidly with steam and water.  More of them were pools of mud, with bubbles coming up from the bottom once in a while. 

Some experiences of God’s spirit and direction are like the showy geysers.  More of them are like the mud pots.  These bubbles – are they of new life?  Or are they just gases put out by old decaying organic matter? 

I think St. Mary’s is in sort of a bubbling mud stage.  There are bubbles of regret coming up in this transitional time – regret for customs that have died out; regret for people who have died or moved away; regret for youth and the energy of the time of first building.  And there are bubbles of ideas and initiative for new life – ideas for new possibilities for outreach; hints of gifts for leadership and ministries yet undeveloped or untapped; ideas for caring for one another. 

I’m trying to be patient, and prayerful, in discerning which bubbles are which.   Trying to tread carefully and not fall into the mud.

Posted by: jaimemwsanders | March 2, 2009

Slogging through mud and blackberries

It seems that among Christians who observe Lent, we have an idea that we should go out of our way to make ourselves unhappy and uncomfortable during it.  Generally we get in the habit of giving up a particular thing we like – chocolate, or beer – and we do that each year.  But what is the connection between Lent and the Sunday that immediately precedes it, the Transfiguration?  In the gospel story we call the Transfiguration, a handful of disciples go with Jesus to a mountaintop, and he is transformed in their sight, and God tells them “this is my beloved Son, listen to him.”  And Moses and Elijah are there with him.  For a moment these men see reality as God sees it, and see that God is with and beside them, as God was with the prophets of their people.  God is not a distant figure that speaks only through ancient prophets, but God speaks through their teacher and friend Jesus. 

Then we get to Lent, and the forty days in the wilderness.  We aren’t on the mountaintop anymore.

Isn’t this how life works?  I preached last night at a retirement home, and I told them about Annie Lamott’s wisdom – that there are really only two prayers, “help, help, help!” and “thank you, thank you, thank you!” and life is the alternation of the two. 

But I think there is a stronger connection between the Transfiguration and Lent.  In the Transfiguration we are given a glimpse of the relationship God desires with us – a relationship not clouded by our sins and fear.  Then in Lent we are called to come out of denial about the things standing in the way of that relationship. 

If you think in visual images, think of the Transfiguration as like a beautiful architectural model of a building.  Then we go out into the field where the building will go, and deal with the present reality of mud and blackberries.  We could just stay admiring the model, and pretend the building exists.   Or we can come out of denial and do the work needed to actually build it. 

So what glimpse have you been given of the beauty of God beside you?  And what is standing in the way?

Posted by: jaimemwsanders | February 14, 2009

The Vicar of Woodburn

LIke many Episcopalians, I am fond of things English – BBC comedies, Dorothy Sayers mysteries, dull but sensible shoes . . . This is my ethnic heritage – not Mardi Gras street festivals, but Shrove Tuesday pancakes and Gilbert & Sullivan operettas. 

One of my favorite BBC comedies is The Vicar of Dibley, starring Dawn French as the first woman vicar of a small English village populated by the most eccentric group of people one could imagine.  In the first show, the church council is gathered for a sherry party to meet the new vicar, whom they think is named “Gerry.”  Geraldine arrives, and their eyes pop out, and she says “oh, you were expecting a bloke, weren’t you.  Beard, bible, bad breath . . . and instead you get a bodacious babe.” 

Tomorrow I preach my first sermon as priest in charge of St. Mary’s Episcopal Church, Woodburn – as the first woman to be called to that position since the church was founded in 1890-something.  I’m thinking of quoting the Vicar of Dibley – but I probably won’t, because change for an elderly congregation isn’t something to treat that lightly, and I don’t think they are used to humor from the pulpit.  But sometime I hope we can watch the DVD and laugh together, because there is something incredibly freeing about laughter. 

In seminary I had a recurring phrase that I built a daydream around -“Afternoon Tea with the Vicar.”  Now I have a chance to make that daydream come true.  On Thursday afternoons I’m going to lead Bible Study at St. Mary’s, and then I’m going to host afternoon tea.  I’ll make scones, and coffee, and buy a nice teapot, and maybe the ladies of the Senior Estates will get dressed up and bring their hats out of the closet, and come and pretend for an afternoon that we are all in an English cozy mystery. 

I feel very lucky.  No -not lucky – blessed.  I gave my gifts and dreams to God and God, as is God’s custom, took, blessed, and gave them back.  Gentle readers, if any there may be, pray for me and for the people of Woodburn.

Posted by: jaimemwsanders | December 26, 2008

Why shepherds?

In the gospel attributed to Luke, there are no wise men who come to visit the baby Jesus, but there are shepherds.  The appearance of an angel to shepherds, and their visit to the manger, takes up more room even than the birth.  Why shepherds?

The art connected with this story through the ages depicted shepherds in the costumes of the time and place in which the art was made: a medieval breviary shows shepherds as medieval peasants, wearing short belted tunics and hoods, for example.  I wonder if those ancient anachronistic artists didn’t know more about the gospel than we do with our zeal for historical and archeological accuracy.  Maybe the shepherds in this story represent us, the hearers/readers.  And, like in the story, we see God’s incarnation in this particular person Jesus only by the grace of God and the angels.  It isn’t self-evident; the Bible vouches for it only if we first make the leap of thinking the Bible is trustworthy.  It is only because something in our life experience connects for us this person Jesus with the healing and transforming power outside ourself that we call God that we are brought to the manger.  “and the glory of God shone around them.”  Poetry does better than prose in conveying these experiences. 

If the shepherds represent us – you and me around the manger – it isn’t us at our most powerful, or most secure, or most respected.  Shepherds, the New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary reports, were looked at askance by people in Jesus’s time and place, because they were thought to graze their sheep on other peoples’ pastures.  It was a hard, dirty, cold, unrespected job.  The evidence suggests that Luke’s audience was the poor and marginal.  But even for us privileged people of 21st-century America, maybe that is right.  The experiences that help us see God in Jesus are often gifts of the hard times: the times we feel alone, and poor, and shamed.  When we hit bottom and find there a mysterious grace.  These are the touchstones that give reality to the joy we sing about when we are warm, and in company of other believers, gathered around the creche and altar in candlelight singing.

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