Snowy, steepled church inspires Christmas blessings

churBy Joe LaGuardia

Just mention the word “church”, and people do not think of auditoriums with coffee shops, but the classic one-room, steepled church set in a snowy, foothills environment.  A red door stands ready to greet visitors and large windows provide light even on the darkest of days.  Perhaps there is a bell tower, chiming people to worship on the Sabbath.

Although I grew up in a congregation that met in a renovated library, this was always my picture of the stereotypical church.  There is something beautiful about it, something naïve. It’s like a Thomas Kinkade painting, an escapist perspective that makes us feel that all is well in the world.

I enjoy seeing churches like this on our family trips across the South.  We even purchased Christmas cards this year with a picture of one on the front.  “Christmas blessings,” it reads, anticipating a snowy Christmas in an otherwise mild-weathered year.

These churches also remind me of a song my children used to sing with clasped hands in front of them: “Here’s the church, here’s the steeple; open it up, and here are the people.”

Their fingers, waving in the air, represented the people of course.  It is not the building, but the people who make the church what it is.

The only problem is that the people who make up the church are imperfect, flawed individuals.  Get into the life of the congregation and remove the building, and issues arise in our perception for what it means to be Christian.

No wonder there are those who call Christians hypocrites.  Ask any churchgoer why he attends church, however, and he will be the first to tell you that he attends precisely because of his sins.

Like St. Paul, we Christians want to do what the Spirit tells us, but we mess things up instead:

“I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do,” Paul wrote to churches in Rome (Romans 7:15).

You can keep your perfect people; I’ll take the misfits, thank you very much, because the very meaning of being a church is of being the people of God gathered together to bear witness to salvation that comes with grace and grace alone.

Several weeks ago, our church ordained our associate pastor, Karen Woods, to the gospel ministry.  Somewhere along the way, we read passages from Romans 12 and 1 Peter 3.  Both scripture lessons affirmed the gifts that God gives us, the gifts of the Spirit, and the gifts that empower us to do the work of the church and be the church in the world.

The passages also encourage us to give God the gift of our very life:

Present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual act of worship” (Romans 12:1).

Christmas is a time of gift-giving and receiving, and though our perspectives of church become a little more serene and nostalgic during this time of year (how many people return to church after being absent all year long?), we are reminded of the great gifts we exchange with God in time for Jesus’ birthday.

We give God the gift of our life as a response to the great gift that God has given us in spite of our weaknesses and sin.  We acknowledge God’s grace although we are undeserving.  We celebrate our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, who came to live for us, lead the way, die for us, and rise from the dead in order to give us eternal life.

What better time to come back to church than during Christmas?  Our churches may not look the same, but the feelings of entering the sacred space of what is historically called “God’s womb” remains constant.  It is there that we receive the singular mandate to repent, believe, and then share the good news of the Gospel with others.

Clergy as friends? An ongoing debate about friendships within a church

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Several months ago, an article by M. Craig Barnes in The Christian Century caused a stir when he asserted that it is impossible for pastors to befriend parishioners.  Letters to the editor followed and gave Barnes mixed reviews.

In the article, Barnes argued that pastors, set apart in ministry and called to lead the church, cannot maintain friendships in the church to which they are called.  Certainly, relationships are close-knit and pastors and parishioners share many experiences, but this is not to be mistaken for an intimate friendship.

A pastor still has a particular (and peculiar) calling in each parishioner’s life: to correct, disciple, nourish, guide.  A shepherd is effective by being shepherd, not by pretending to be one of the sheep.

Not so, says his critics.  Pastors are called to lead, but they are also called to befriend others in a posture of humility and service.  Pastors are not the professionals they once were, and pastors who try to wield their titles lose connections with others and, eventually, churches.  Did not Jesus tell his disciples that they were his “friends” (John 15:15)?  What makes ordained ministers so special?

In This Odd and Wondrous Calling, the Reverend Lillian Daniel understands this sentiment, but argues that pastors who befriend parishioners will find it impossible to snuff out the role of pastor entirely.  A pastor can try hard to drop the frock, lose the collar, toss the tie; but, at the end of the day, the pastor will always be one.

She recalls a situation in which a friend started attending her church.  Over time, she saw the relationship evolve, and she was too entrenched in being a pastor to be a friend at the same time.  As she tells it, “As pastor and parishioner we now had a relationship centered in a community, we would no longer just sit on the steps and talk about nothing.”

I, too, have found this to be my experience (and I have tried awfully hard to shake the “pastoral” role, trust me).  My nature is to be friendly with all parishioners.  I don’t hesitate to call any one of them friends, I give hugs freely, and I am certainly closer with some more than others because of similar interests and age.

My church expects me to define–and keep–boundaries appropriate for ministry.  They expect me to have my ear to the divine Voice that brings comfort and, at times, prophetic criticism.  After all, people have pastors for a reason.

Many a church pastor are going the way of Barnes’ critics and even refuse salaries so that boundaries with parishioners are less rigid.  Many pastors think that being too “professional” is a lonely, unsustainable road which costs one too many friendships.  Instead, they seek to be “relevant” to a generation that champions relationships over religion.

Yet, for many people who attend such churches, there is something missing in their spiritual walk.  In being friend, the pastor does not provide the much-needed role of shepherd for her community of faith.  Eventually, the community has trouble finding its way.

No doubt, Jesus called his disciples friends, but he is also ultimately the one who will judge all people upon his return to earth (John 5:25-30).  We can connect to Jesus in an intimate way, but eventually he will stand before us because he has a calling to fulfill too.  Pastors will always strive to balance the role of minister with friendship; and, for as long as they strive, there will always be a debate as to whether the two types of roles are compatible.  An odd and wondrous calling indeed.

“And your daughters shall prophesy…”

“And your daughters shall prophesy” (Acts 2).

Peter preached this from the prophet Joel because it was on the day of Pentecost that God’s Spirit filled the disciples and set their mouths ablaze with God’s powerful Word.

Peter must have learned a thing or two between Easter and Pentecost because only a few short months ago he dismissed the women disciples’ claim that Jesus’ rose from the dead as mere “idle tales” (Luke 24).

Yesterday the disciples silence women in their midst; now, with the Spirit on the loose, Peter affirmed that women were commissioned to preach too.

Woman preachers back then were not uncommon.  In the ancient Greek and Roman cultures, women acted as representatives of the gods.  In Peter’s own Jewish tradition, women became heroes that spoke God’s truth: Deborah the judge, Ruth the liberator, and Judith the heroine to name a few.

A woman preacher in that new Christ movement, however, was audacious nonetheless.  Even Paul wrestled with it in the Corinthian churches when he combated conflict within this newly-formed congregations.  Paul tried to explain how these churches could provide the wild flame of Spirit with some semblance of order.

Yes, the Spirit gave gifts to whomever the Spirit pleased, men and women alike.  But when one claimed that his or her gift was more powerful than another, it became an autocratic weapon rather than a contribution to God’s Kingdom.

It was to a group of overzealous wives (and their husbands) that Paul gave the instruction to be “silent” in the church in 1 Corinthians 14:34.  This command did not come out of nowhere; rather, it was set in the context of how to prophesy (read: preach) in a way that promoted the church’s growth (14:26).

It’s unfortunate that some folks use this verse to silence women even in a post-Pentecost era.  Peter learned that women did not speak idle tales, that even the daughters of his friends might declare the Lord’s Word too; and we are to do the same.

In fact, to silence women risks dismembering a part of Christ’s Body.  It is an act of violence akin to a different type of crucifixion, for it was the silent Christ who hung on the cross and fell victim to the power and authority of a different type of institution that prided itself on order and so-called peace.

Recently I met a man who fell away from church.  When I asked about his past, he remained silent.  After prodding his wife about it, she admitted that he didn’t go to church because the church had turned away his parents.  She explained that his mother had once been ordained as a minister.

The church in which he grew up laid hands on his mother but soon became the very church that denied her calling whatsoever.

Like his mother, he remains silent in the wake of the violent excommunication that befell the entire family.  “We have silenced some of our best spirits,” mourns Atlanta theologian Wendy Farley, “transforming their devotion [to the gospel] into a capital crime.”

Christ’s Body dismembered indeed.

We Protestants are not the only ones who need to learn the same lesson Peter learned long ago.  In the midst of debates over women ordination and contraception, the Vatican launched an investigation into the platforms and ideology of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious.

This is a move seen by many a Catholic woman as a threat to North American nuns who work tirelessly on behalf of social justice causes.  In this case, the Vatican didn’t accuse the Conference of speaking too much, but not speaking out enough against controversial issues that affect women across the globe.

The real event of Pentecost was not necessarily the wind and fire that accompanied the Holy Spirit, as powerful as those symbols may seem, but the Spirit’s empowering of Jesus’ disciples–men and women–to speak on Christ’s behalf in the “day of the Lord.”

The Spirit will continue to inspire women to prophesy despite man’s feeble attempts to legislate or indoctrinate otherwise, and we should be wise to listen.

Sources:

Wendy Farley, Gathering Those Driven Away (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 2011), 8.