Friday, June 28, 2013

Aging and Spirituality

The following was written for the weekly newsletter of the church where I serve, Country Club Congregational United Church of Christ.

            When a minister shows up in a new church, she or he gets to meet people where they are in their lives.  The minister meets the 89 year-old in a nursing home and does not know her as the loquacious teenager she was once.  The unassailable process of aging is why I want so badly to hear the stories of the people for whom I am minister.  I only get to meet people as they are now rather than as they used to be.  Perhaps it's my own entry into middle age that adds some urgency to my thoughts.  I still feel mentally about 25, and I'm surprised when a 20 year-old waiter treats me like I'm a dinosaur.  I think, "Who are you calling 'sir' in that tone of voice?  Wasn't it yesterday that I was the kid waiting tables?"  So, I try to work hard at understanding my church people are more than the person I am meeting in the present; each of us carries our past selves along with us.
            I was reminded of this truth by something I read in the Missouri-Mid-South Conference United Church of Christ newsletter this week.  Rev. Davida Crabtree is our acting Conference Minister.  When I met her at the Conference Annual Gathering, she asked for Louise Wallace's address.  Louise played a very important part in Davida's life and she wanted to visit Louise when she passed through Kansas City.  This is what Davida wrote:

"I stopped in Kansas City to visit Louise Wallace, a great "saint" of the UCC, member at Country Club Congregational UCC. Louise was a member of the national Executive Council from 1965 to 1971 and nominated me to serve on the council, then the youngest person ever to serve! Later we both served on the first Task Force on Women of the UCC and Louise was co-chair. It was through her leadership that the Antoinette Brown Award for women in ministry was established, and through her church that the pewter medallions for the award were funded. I hadn't seen her in a number of years and was delighted to be able to have a conversation with this amazing elder (96!) among us. I just love Louise, and don't know anyone who doesn't!"

I have lamented many times since coming to CCCUCC that I did not know Louise in her more active days (which weren't that long ago).  Those new to the church may only know Louise as the woman in the wheelchair who has trouble hearing and seeing.  They may not knowshe has done so much for God's justice in our church and denomination and beyond.  She helped to create the Department of United Church Women at the National Council of Churches and traveled the world speaking up for women's rights.  Because of her work with NCC, she sat in the ninth row at the famous March on Washington and heard Martin Luther King, Jr.'s famous "I Have a Dream" speech.  She was the president of Planned Parenthood in Kansas City.  She organized a task force in the United Church of Christ on women in ministry that opened up the UCC for female clergy.  The "Antoinette Brown Award" for outstanding female clergy give at each national meeting of our denomination was created by Louise (Antoinette Brown was the first ordained woman in America-ordained in 1851 by our Congregationalist ancestors).  Louise's story is an amazing one.
            Similarly, this week I have been thinking about another one of our amazing members, Russ Hawkins.  Russ and his wife Helma have bravely shared with our church about Russ' diagnosis of early stage Alzheimer's Disease.  Russ is now frustrated by memory loss, but you can still easily see the same gregarious and caring nature he demonstrated for decades as a United Methodist minister.  Russ and Helma have shared with me Russ' history of getting into trouble by standing up against racism, sexism and homophobia throughout his career.  A number of times, a bishop had to move Russ from a parish, because white church members complained about his efforts to integrate a church or because homophobic members did not appreciate his welcome of LGBT people.  I have known many retired United Methodist clergy who remained UMC while swallowing their frustration over the denominations' battles over LGBT rights, so I was surprised when I found out Russ was a retired UMC minister who is a member of a UCC church.  Russ told me that he grew fed up with his denomination, because his own two gay sons would not be fully welcome in it.  He chose to join a church where all his children would be welcomed with open arms.
            I attended a workshop this week for clergy on how to care for people with Alzheimer's Disease and to support their caregivers.  I am grateful to Helma for telling me about it.  The information presented was terrific, and I stand in awe of the staff of the Alzheimer's Association who do so much for people affected by the disease.  One of the handouts they offered contained a list worth passing on:

Fourteen Spiritual Needs as We Age

1.      A need for meaning, purpose and hope
2.      A need to transcend circumstances
3.      A need for support in dealing with loss
4.      A need for continuity
5.      A need for validation and support of religious behaviors
6.      A need to engage in religious behaviors
7.      A need for personal dignity and sense of worthiness
8.      A need for unconditional love
9.      A need to express anger and doubt
10.  A need to feel that God is on their side
11.  A need to love and serve others
12.  A need to be thankful
13.  A need to forgive and be forgiven
14.  A need to prepare for death and dying.

It seems to me that this list contains 14 good reasons for being a part of a faith community as ALL of us grow older.

Grace and Peace,

The Church is Not a Building

The following was written for the weekly newsletter of the church where I serve, Country Club Congregational United Church of Christ.

            This past weekend it was garage sale time in our neighborhood and the Peeples family sold some stuff in the driveway-mainly at the instigation of the boys who quickly lost interest  once the temperature rose. Among the shoppers were a group of people who were very chatty, so chatty that I figured something was up. I was right. They are members of a new church that meets in our local elementary school and they were out "shopping" the garage sales and meeting the neighbors to invite them to church. I quickly played the minister card before the evangelism went too far, but I still had to assure them I was "saved." Although their theology isn't a match with my own, I did find out something interesting about their church--they are planning on never buying a church building. 
            Their philosophy of church involves not buying a building but rather renting one and using the money, time and energy that would be spent on a building to do ministry and evangelism. I have to admit that I see a lot of wisdom in this way of thinking. (Don't worry I'm not advocating that we sell our church building.) I've spent a lot of time in meetings where church folks agonized over how to pay for building repairs and maintenance. I've done a capital campaign for major capital expenses. I've mediated battles over renovations.  I've watched missions budgets shrink in order to pay for repairs.  I've watched people devote themselves to church buildings in a way they would never devote themselves to serving the poor or worshiping God. I am grateful for the servants of the churches I have served and the one I currently serve who do the hard grunt work around the church building, but at times I've seen care for the building turn into an end in itself or even an idol to be worshiped.
            A church building is a tool for ministry and nothing else. It can provide a sense of place and belonging that enables one to experience God's presence. (Indeed, I've heard from members of new churches without buildings that they struggle with a sense of rootlessness.) It can be a place to worship God with one's faith community. It can be a place to celebrate and to mourn. It can be a place to send out servants into the world to share God's love with those dying for it. Yet, because of our vocabulary it can also be confused with the church itself. We call the building "church," but the church is the community not a building. A church building is not an end but a means.
            Our church building located at 205 West 65th Street in the Armor Hills neighborhood of Brookside in Kansas City, MO happens to be a particularly beautiful one. It's placement in the neighborhood and on its property along with its federal architecture make it a pleasure to behold. Routinely we have visitors who remark that they always wanted to visit the church because the building was so attractive and one day they finally walked in the door. It is a great asset to have an attractive church building, because many church buildings are god-awful ugly examples of the worst in 1950's and 1960's architecture.
            In my nine months as minister of our church, I have sensed regular anxiety about the maintenance our building and how we will pay for the work. (Most of this anxiety is borne by the dedicated few who are willing to work on church finances and the building.) We do have a lot of maintenance to do and it adds up financially, but I can assure you that things could be so much worse. We have no major structural issues and what we do need to work on falls under the category of owning a building--stuff wears out and falls apart, so you have to fix stuff. Our church has not fallen for the temptation to allow our building anxieties to overcome our devotion to ministry--at least not yet. That temptation remains, however, for our church and every church that owns a building.
            This Sunday our church will do something new. After an abbreviated worship service (at the regular time) and a quick lunch we will head downtown to United Inner City Services for a few hours to help their service to their community. UICS serves its high-need community by providing childcare, a clothes closet, a food pantry, literacy classes and more. We will do some work that their staff simply does not have time to do--touch up painting throughout the building, gardening, building new shelves for the food pantry, sorting child clothes in the clothes closet and sharing information about UICS with the neighborhood.
            We are leaving the church building for many reasons. We will serve a worthy organization with which we already have a connection (church members have served on their board and we provide Christmas presents to the children in their preschool). We will carry out our mission as disciples of Jesus Christ to care for those who do not share the same blessings we enjoy. We will remember that the Christian life by its very nature involves service to others not merely our own self-interest. We will rediscover that the church is not a building but rather a community of people who seek to live as followers of Jesus.
Grace and Peace,