A necessary good

A few years ago an old friend of mine shared an article on Facebook, written by an atheist organization, which advocated for the removal of the tax exemption status that religious institutions enjoy.  I was a bit hurt that my friend did this, in part because she knows I am a pastor serving one of those tax-dodging religious institutions.  I commented on the article and said that if churches had to pay property taxes, most would close, and all those community groups that use our buildings for free or significantly reduced rents- 12 Step groups, non-profits, neighborhood associations, preschools – would have a hard time finding somewhere else to go.  She quickly apologized and said she was trying to make a different point.  It still stings a little.

In the last year I’ve had several experiences of people who identify as spiritual but not religious, or even just plain atheist, asking to use the church.  Some were services of some sort – a wedding, a memorial – actually, not a memorial; a celebration of life.  I’ve negotiated with families and couples in how many times we can say “God” and if we can refer to “Jesus” and whether or not there has to a reading from the Bible.

I’m just about done with the accommodating.  I don’t want to throw Jesus out with the  proverbial bathwater.

I think if you come to church for a wedding or a memorial, you should not be surprised if the pastor mentions God or Jesus.  That’s part of the deal.  I will no longer officiate at a non-religious wedding; a friend can get an online certificate or a justice of the peace can perform the ceremony.  I’ve got to have a little integrity about my call as a pastor.

I know that Christendom is in transition.  I know we must find new ways not only to tell the old story but more importantly to live out the old story.  I know many judge the church as outdated and irrelevant and self-absorbed, and that is often a fair critique.  But I also think that much of the judgment comes from ignorance, from people simply not taking the time to learn about what churches and people in churches do to contribute to a healthy neighborhood and society.

When did Jesus become the bad guy?  Maybe when the followers of Jesus strayed too far from his teachings.  Maybe when Constantine made Christianity the religion of the state.  Blame bad Christian music.  Blame really bad Christian art.  Blame us getting so caught up in the business of the church that we forgot about the call of the church.

Go.  Feed.  Pray.  Listen.  Study.  Hope.  Dream.  Risk.  Heal.  Lament.  Proclaim.  Share.  Believe.  Repent.  Forgive.  Teach.  Live.  Die.  Live again.


Have barn, will put on show

Many years ago, I trod the boards.  I did theater, on stage and backstage, and not only that, I did musical theater.  I can still muster up a box step and a decent pair of jazz hands if necessary.  Those things aren’t usually needed for a worship service, but it’s good to be prepared.

On vacation this summer we had the opportunity to catch a bit of summer stock, a production of “Singin’ in the Rain” performed by the Playmill Theatre of West Yellowstone, Montana. To be truthful, I wasn’t expecting much.  It’s summer theater, and it’s in a remote corner of a lesser-populated state.  But I walked out of that theater delighted by so much, and reminded a bit of a life I once had.  Kudos, Playmill!

These kids – I think they were all young – had gumption and talent.  Before the show, the actors ushered the audience to their seats.  During intermission, those same actors (in character) sold fudge and ice cream and lemonade and popcorn to the audience.  I bought some fudge, and when the actor (who played the studio’s p.r. man) didn’t have the right bills, I told him to keep the change.  “Really?” he asked.  Could he maybe get me some water or something?  Sure, I said.  When he then tried to offer me change again, I told him not worry about it.  “Wow, thanks!” he said, not a trace of sarcasm or irony to be heard.  It was all of $5.00.

That cast could sing and dance with the best of them.  I doubt any of them will make it to Broadway, but I hope they have other aspirations.  They were gracious hosts and actors, and I could not ask for anything more.

Almost thirty years ago I was production stage manager for a summer theater in Princeton, New Jersey.  Among the cast and crew were some of the people most dear to me in all the world.  It was a lot of work, and there were the usual tensions, plus it was one of those summers when the 17-year cicadas were out.  It remains the funnest summer of my life.

My time in the theater trained me for ministry.  Sure, some people are trained in the mission field and some in the towers of academia, but doing shows gave me skills and insights I use every week in planning and leading worship, in working with a staff team, in providing hospitality and creating community.  The lights aren’t as strong, the dance rarely includes tap shoes, and the sermon is a bit long for a soliloquy, but it’s theater at its best.  Like all theater, it is good when it is most real and authentic.

Of course no one in the real world sings and taps during a rainstorm, or if they do, I’ve yet to see it.  But every time I step into the pulpit, I feel that excitement, the joy of saying something true and good and uplifiting.

Applause not necessary.


With thanks to the theatre folk along the way: Tom and G’ann, Baranna, Virginia, Curt, Kirsten, Biz, Tom E, Amy, Louis, Kay, Carol, Annie, Ken, Emily, Linda, Amy, Miriam, Diana, Carol, Glen, Hans, Alan, Peter, David, Robert, Debbie, and so many others who I’m sure I’ve forgotten.  Break legs!

Summer Vacation: Instagramming the Gates of Hell

Beneath the wild beauty of Yellowstone National Park lives a supervolcano,  a cauldron of hellish gasses and liquid rock formed, in part, by the struggle between massive tectonic plates that vie for space under what we call Wyoming.  If that volcano were ever to blow – and it could – it would be the end of the world.  The volume of ash that would enter the atmosphere would cause climate change that would be catastrophic.

Now the odds of that supervolcano blowing in my lifetime or my child’s lifetime are pretty slim, but that gave little comfort to my daughter as we visited the park on our summer vacation.

“Mom, if the volcano blows, where is the safest place to be?”

“Well, honey, I think you’d want to be right in the middle, at the center of it, so you’d die quickly and not have to go through the onslaught of another ice age, panic, mayhem, and all of that.”

So there we were, on a beautiful August day, blithely taking pictures with our phones of the gorgeous canyon that belies the hell beneath it.  Later that day as I posted pictures on Instagram, I wondered about that – is it hubris to do something as mundance as taking a picture of a place that could cause the end of the world?  Do we realize how fleeting life is, and how powerless we are?

On this same vacation, we’ve been watching the Olympics at night.  Every one of those athletes is amazing, and the irony of snacking in a comfy chair while watching feats of strength, speed, and agility has not been lost on me.  It was last night as the women gymnasts competed on the vault and uneven bars, throwing their tiny, solid bodies into the air in crazy moves, that I thought of Instagramming the gates of hell.

Perhaps it is both hubris and courage that allows us to pull out our phones and take pictures of a volcano, and to train and work and compete as we push the limits of what the human body can do.  My family watched those gymnasts in awe – how can they do that?  Beyond the physicality of it, how do they summon the courage to bounce backward up onto a platform?

Vacation has been a time to marvel at the world in its creative, violent beauty; a time to marvel at those people who push the boundaries of human possibility.  So maybe, those two things will merge some day before the volcano blows: courage will meet catastrophe.  Who knows what will happen?