Church basements

A few years ago I did a wedding at the church for a couple who were not official members of the congregation.  The first time I met with them for premarital counseling, one of them asked if they could check out the church basement.  Sure, I said, with a slight hesitation, as we had already determined that they would get ready elsewhere and would not need “the bride’s room” to get ready.   As it turns out, this bride was the granddaughter of a pastor and she had a particular fascination with churches.  When we got downstairs, she took a big sniff, and said, “This smells just like a church basement should.”

I wasn’t sure how to react.  We had just done some renovations that included new drainage that would prevent the plaster walls from seeping water, so I was hoping she was not smelling fresh mold.

I’ve served a lot of churches, most of them with musty old basements.  In my first call, the choir music was stored in the basement and got moldy, so we had a good old-fashioned “wipe all the music down with diluted bleach” party.  We also availed ourselves of the opportunity to throw away the life-sized nativity set, since Joseph’s head was bashed in and one of the wise men was missing a hand.  That was before we found fifteen bags of bulk mail that were never delivered as someone hid them in the bowels of the church basement.

More recently, I’ve begun to think of church basements as magical places because of the great changes that begin in them.  How many 12 Step groups meet in church basements, in uneven circles of beige folding chairs, where people admit so much truth in their lives and seek deep transformation?  Those groups don’t work for everyone, I know, but I also know people who know they would be dead in some gutter without them.

This week I attended a meeting in the basement room of another church.  It was as you would suppose – acoustic tile ceiling, fluorescent lights, that unique slight smell, beige metal folding chairs, long tables, pillars in the middle of the room holding up the sanctuary one floor up.

Forty of us gathered in that church basement to talk about poverty, and the new Poor People’s Campaign, about being civilly disobedient to let the powers that be know that we really are serious about our friends who live with so little while we live with so much.  We signed things, and talked about why we were there, and promised to do something.  I wonder what spell J.K. Rowling would write for that, ending poverty.  Luxurios totem, maybe, or abudentsia totalis.

It didn’t seem very magical, if you looked at any one part of it – a few church people, more non-church people, xeroxed paper, beige folding chairs.  People who care about rents, and immigrants, and housing.  People like me who may or may not be courageous enough to be disobedient, albeit civilly.  People who believe that change can happen.

Even change that begins in a church basement.

church basement

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John Galt is loose!

romance_novelTrue confession: I love Atlas Shrugged.  I think it is a wonderful romance novel, complete with striking beauty Dagney and the bevy of men who wish to bed her.  I think the next edition of Ayn Rand’s hot masterpiece should include an image of Dagney, corseted under her stern suit, breathless in the arms of John Galt, immortalized by Fabio who has cut his hair short for the occasion.  Really, I think that’s the only way to read this Rand-y romance.  And I have, more than once, though I’ve never made it through the 70 page manifesto/radio address/proclamation of love by John Galt in the latter part of the book.  There’s something romantic about the notion of leaving all those talentless mucks behind and creating one’s own utopia of talent, hidden away in the gorgeous and rugged landscape in Colorado.  A brain drain is afoot, and John Galt is behind it all, whispering to the best and brightest to come away, to leave the world, to create a community where their talent will be tested and validated.

Every so often I feel that way about the church – not that it’s full of talentless mucks; not that at all.  But when I learn of another pastor friend leaving the parish, or of a parishioner who has decided he or she is done  with church, I wonder: what is luring them away?  Is there some spiritual equivalent of John Galt that whispers to them, “There is more… come away… leave it all… you are better than this… enjoy your Sunday mornings….”

The people I know who have answered a new call to non-parish ministry are good folk.  They are faithful.  They are talented.  They have not made this decision lightly.  But every time I hear a friend is leaving her or his congregation to head up a non-profit, or to go into counseling, or just to take a break, a part of me gets so very sad.  The church needs them, I think.  But I also think, is the church so broken they had to leave?

I don’t think the church is that broken, or better put, I don’t think the church is any more broken now than it ever was.  We are an imperfect people called together into community, and that right there means brokenness.  I think my friends who leave parish ministry leave not because of brokenness but because of faithfulness – faithfulness to the call they discern from God, faithfulness to their true selves.

We pastors are broken people who minister to other broken people in a broken world.  We are all in the process of mending.  We are not super-human, uber-faithful, crazy talented folks who deign to share our gifts with the undermasses.  We are not Dagney Taggart; we are not John Galt.  We understand that however flawed or perfect we are, there is One who is more perfect, One who accepts and even uses our flaws.  And if that One calls one of us to go do something new, to minister in a classroom or a counseling office or a non-profit, then okay: it’s not that the one is leaving the church, but taking the church and God to the world.

So Miss Ayn, you can have your John Galt luring the arrogant away.  You may have all those people.  I’ll keep the rest, in the church or in the world or in the home.  But thanks all the same for the trashy romance novel.

A time to keep and a time to throw away

bubble wrapI have moved a lot, and by move, I mean pack up all my belongings and take them out of one dwelling and unpack them in another dwelling.  I, with or without my family, moved in 1966, 1968, 1972, 1984, 1986, 1987, 1988, 1989, 1991, 1992, 1993, 1997, 1998, 1999, 2001, 2004, 2005, 2008, and 2011.  That’s a lot of cardboard and bubblewrap.

Each time I have moved as an adult, I have purged before and after the  move.  I am so happy for those who love garage sales, but I’m not one of you, so the Goodwill and Salvation Army have benefitted well from my peripatetic life.  Each time I have moved I have looked forward to the new thing and at the same time mourned all that is left behind.  During the crunch time of moving, I’ve have lived in two places at once, said hello while saying goodbye, closed things up and opened new things.

Serving as a pastor in a mainline church in the 21st century feels like being in the throes of moving.  I am in two worlds at once.  I am in the world for which I was trained in seminary, serving a church with the physical plant and administration of yesteryear.  I am in my old house, and while it does creak, I know which floorboards creak.  It is a comfortable place.  And God is calling me – and us – to move.

Not only do I feel completely unprepared to be a post-modern pastor of a church in the 21st century, I am living in two places at once.  I am still pastoring in 20th century mode, supporting our work done in the 20th century, leading worship in the style of the old way.  I am trying to learn about the new ways, too, and find it getting hard to be holding on to the old stuff while making room for the new stuff.  A good purge is needed.

photoWe once lived in a house that was taken by eminent domain and torn down.  The evening after the wrecking ball finished its work, I drove by the old place, saw the pile of rubble that had been the home we brought our baby daughter to, and sobbed.  Some folks had lined up across the street to watch the destruction, but I couldn’t do it.  It felt violent, somehow.  Now there’s a brand new fire station there, one that the city needed.  Intellectually it all makes sense.  Emotionally, it still hurts to look at pictures of the rubble that had been our home.

I’m not suggesting we tear the old church down with a wrecking ball.  My friend Christine Chakoian wrote a great piece called “Sifting Our Inheritance: What to Keep and What to Let Go” in churchleadership.com.  She rightly points out that we do keep some things.  But we also let some things go.

Do we let go of the organ?  If we did that at my congregation, that would getting rid of something that many of our folk consider a prime marker of our identity.  Do we get rid of committees?  I would love to, and I would love to think creatively about how we would get our work done.  I don’t think anyone would mind having one less meeting to go to, but there would be anxiety in the in-between time.  Do we let go of paid clergy?  Shouldn’t all of us pastor types be working ourselves out of a job?  That’s a terrifying thought.

When we made our last move, my husband, daughter and I loaded up our Honda Civic and spend four nights and five days driving from Wisconsin to Oregon.  It was a great transition time.  It was just the three of us and the clothes we needed for the trip and the things they wouldn’t take on the moving van.  We promised our daughter we would stay in motels that had pools so that she could go swimming every day.  We visited the Badlands and Mt. Rushmore.  We marveled at the open skies of the west.  We listened to the Wicked soundtrack, over and over and over again.  We were cocooned and in each other’s company with no distractions.  We needed that, after the hubbub of packing up and saying goodbye, and before the stress of starting anew and unpacking.

Maybe the church needs a cocooned, communal transition time, when we take with us only what we need for a short journey.  We could do a little sight seeing, and we could sing, and we could find ways to refresh each day. Because there is a new home that awaits with all its own quirks.  There will be boxes to unpack and recycle.  There will be grief over what is no longer, and joy at what is.

But I really don’t want to move again.

ADDENDUM: There are no physical moves or job changes in our near future!

On replacing refrigerators and turning ocean liners

On replacing refrigerators and turning ocean liners

50kelvinatorrefrigeratorWe had to replace our refrigerator this year.  Serving the ice cream semi-soft is one thing, but pouring ice cream into a bowl and not a milkshake glass is something else all together.  The dearly departed fridge lasted all of nine years.  We bought it when we bought our first house together; it resided in two houses in Wisconsin and one in Portland, and then it died a fairly painless but noisy death.  When one’s refrigerator dies suddenly, one really cannot spend weeks researching a new model.  A quick look at Consumer Reports and a visit to Sears and three days later, a new fridge.

Here’s something we learned from the experience: they no longer make refrigerators that last twenty years, at least not any that are affordable.  We anticipate our new one will last another eight to ten years, and then we will fork over a grand or two for a new one.  I am not pleased about that.  Nor am I pleased that things like cell phones and computers don’t last more than three to five years.  Short-lived appliances are a new trend and if Jesus were around today he might say it’s a sign of the impending apocalypse.

There’s talk in church and other circles these days about nimbleness – nimble leaders who can change hats quickly, congregations that adapt to 21st church, nimble decision-making processes that are not subject to arduous months of meetings and Robert’s Rules of Order.  I am all for nimbleness.  I said to my husband the other day, “After twenty-one years of committee meetings, I would be happy if I never had to go to another one.”  Committee meetings, board meetings, session and presbytery and synod and General Assembly meetings can be productive, but rarely have I seen them exhibit nimbleness.

Is there a connection between nimbleness and short-lived-ness?  One could say we made our refrigerator-buying decision nimbly, and in eight to ten years we will be nimble again.  But will a decision that is made nimbly prove to be long-lived?  Is there merit in taking our time about some things, or is the deliberate pace merely an excuse for how very long it takes to turn an ocean liner around?

If manufacturers took more time to make appliances, would they last longer?  Has technology become our master, and are we subject to the almost daily innovations that lead to faster connection speeds, more apps, and a greater variety of bells and whistles?

I have no answers today, but I am glad the fridge is working.oceean liner