Can the Church Turn Around the Tables of Success?

I just attended the funeral of a colleague from St. Olaf College;  she was one of the most unusual administrators I have known.  I was a department chair during the time that she was in charge of connecting undergraduate students with employed graduates around the country for conversations about and exposure to life after college.

But my colleague didn’t just make policy, create structure, and inform faculty what we were supposed to do.   When our department expressed interest in some kind of program, she would suggest a variety of possibilities, make the arrangements for our choice of possible approaches, invite resources, contact students, set up the facilities and arrange the “educational” opportunities.  As the chair of a department, I was daily involved in so many diverse tasks, that working with my administrative colleague in this manner was truly a breath of fresh air.  

As success came from projects completed in partnership with her, other challenges and endeavors also seemed more amenable to success.  This is no small issue, for in the midst of a frustrating complexity of tasks and the lack of easy resources for resolution, thoughtful offers of support and guidance shaped a hopeful future at the same it brought people together.

Drawing on the dilemma I brought up in my last blog, “Church and the Red Splot”, I wonder if it would ever be possible for our Lutheran Church hierarchy to become like my administrative colleague to those of us in congregations who struggle to find ways to address what’s on our mind -- mental illness, alcoholism, joblessness, diminishing membership, youth expectations, cancer, or homelessness (etc.)? 

As individuals and congregations we are often asked to respond to the issues that are of special interest to the leadership at the top of the church hierarchy.  Those issues are usually important yet they may seem to have little to do with the burning personal issues that so many of us in congregations are facing – today!  

But can The Church hierarchy turn these tables around?  Is it possible that church leaders can begin by asking (all?) congregations about the most important and meaningful personal issues they and their community are now facing?  Then by drawing people together from those congregations that have similar issues, can they engage them with issue-specific resources and empowering support;  enabling congregational teams to do what needs to be done to find success in approaching their concerns? 

It need not be expensive to do this;  online gatherings can be amazingly helpful.  And retired resources may be more than willing to lend their support.

So, can we give it a try?       


Church and the Red Splots

An important encounter happened recently as my wife and I walked back to our car at the conclusion of a funeral in a small Minnesota farming town.   The town, I’ll call it, Crucible, had been a small farming community of Scandinavian (mostly Norwegian) immigrants.  It had a maximum population of a bit over 600 in the mid 1940s.  It had dropped to a low of 250 a few years ago as a result of the change from many small farms to much fewer bigger farms in the territory plus the recent financial recession.  Recently, partly as a result of an influx of immigrants from the South Pacific Islands, the town’s population has increased to about 370. 

As my wife and I walked to the car, the first thing we saw was three Black young adults in gym shorts and shirts walking by on their way to join their friends at the school.  As they passed right by us going the opposite direction, they didn’t catch our eye at first, but responded as my wife said “hello guys”. 

A few feet further along our walk, a man dressed in a suit came up to us and said, “Come here, I want to show you something.” (We didn’t who he was for sure but because he was dressed up we assumed that he had been at the funeral and perhaps knew me as one of the speakers.)  He pointed to the black topped roadway about five feet away where there was about a four inch splot of dark red. 

As I first looked, I thought the red splot might be dried blood and he was going to tell us about a recent tragedy.  But instead, he said, “This is what they do.”  It was said in a way that the red splot was identified as definitive evidence of the whole situation.  Then he went on, “We love them to death, but these immigrants come here and eat their “betel nut leaves” and then spit out the juice like this all over town. 

Our interpreter of his changing town went on to say something in a way that was clearly not meant to be a statement about statistics.  It was a comment about his own and “his” town’s changing life -- and his confusion, fear, or anger -- not really sure what was the underlying emotion.  Anyway, he said, “We used to be a town of Norwegians and some Swedes, but now we are only 40% of the population.”  He stopped his comments at that point as if what he just said explained the entire state of affairs and his apparent quandary.

Frankly, I don’t know more about the town of Crucible, or the interracial dynamics in the town, but the encounter that day reminded me of the late 60s at St. Olaf College when there were huge changes going on in the culture of our student body as a new array of illegal drugs permeated the campus.  The drugs caused “strange” behaviors in the students and created a difficult challenge for the staff who were supposed to deal properly with this new world;  we were confused, fearful and sometimes angry (because we didn’t know what to do to be helpful).

Steve Miles, the student body president, suggested that some of the staff should get a quick education on the new drugs in town and how to go about being helpful – no matter the cost.  The St. Olaf College President, Sid Rand, agreed with Steve and consequently sent me to the University of Chicago for three-days of classes addressing the issues we were facing. 

Soon policies and educational efforts on campus evolved that made a positive difference.  I’m not arguing that our new set of approaches alleviated all the problems by any means, but with the help of many students it lowered the student and staff level of fear, confusion, and anger so that we were better able to address many issues on campus in an intelligent and rational manner.

Given the amazing stories of change coming from our churches, why can’t they serve themselves and the communities in which they are located as leaders asking good questions and hosting discussions for exploring multiple routes toward some kind of resolution. 

First, teams of congregation and community members could attend education sessions (in central locations and/or online) to learn more about the situations they are facing and together share ideas for addressing what needs to be done in their locality. 

The issues addressed would of course need to be contextual to the situation of any given church and its community.  For some the issue might be a dwindling number of parishioners, for others the drug use of some members of the church or community, for others an influx of immigrants in town, for others concern about texting and driving by the young, and for others the draw of gangs.  The possibilities are endless, and our churches would seem to be the most significant organizations in most communities to get the process started and bring a measure of hope.

This is, it seems to me, doing God’s work.


The “Right Way” as Keel?;
Our Eternal Conundrum.

There is no doubt about it, many if not most of us find solace and comfort in knowing the “right way” to think, feel, believe, act, etc.  In an often confusing world, to know that you know what is right is a like the keel on a boat – it helps you to move straight ahead even in the midst of troubled waters.  Our religious beliefs can be like that for most of us.

But there is no doubt about it, many if not most of us have found that at some point or other in our life, as we seek actions that are clearly in the best interests of everybody, we bump into gatekeepers that tell us our plan is not “the right way”;  it’s not the way to do it here.   The religious beliefs of others can be like that at times for us.

Why is it that rather than open our ears, our minds and our hearts and really engage each other in honest and open conversations about the issues before us, those who know “the right way”, those who have counted on the keel of their religion to keep them upright and headed straight ahead, point to that which give them solace and comfort and then close their ears, their mind and their heart to alternative suggestions and approaches that might offer hope, support and help given the difficult issues before us.

The easiest way to cling to one’s own keel, is to simply not to acknowledge or reply to considerations, questions, and ways of thinking outside of one’s own religious and family traditions.  But this rigidity is a serious barrier to life-giving positive relationships in a congregation or across our larger church.  Weakened or destroyed are the very relationship connections that bring us all health and well-being.

We follow the nightly news and sorrow at the horrendous conflicts among people who have different beliefs about the right ways of thinking and believing in other countries.  Yet, in our own towns and congregations we allow similar differences to keep us apart and  muffle healing conversations. 

Why not redouble our efforts to use the power of open conversations -- easily available to us via The Lutheran Online or The Living Lutheran, for instance – to comment, to ask, to share, to know, to listen, to comfort, to sustain each other as together we as a church become part of the solution in our troubled world, not part of the problem.  


Ask Not

Ask not what your church can do for you, ask what you can do for your church.

With apologies to President Kennedy and to members of congregations who have for years given their all to shore up their church in creative ways, I would like to come to grips with the reality of the human nature behind of Kennedy’s words.

Our churches often point with pride to their outreach to those in need, whether across the street or across the globe.  How many of you are members of congregations that identify front and center your good works in supporting missions in Asia or Africa?  How many of you are members of churches that proudly identify efforts by clergy and laity alike to keep in touch with the less able, the shut-ins and the bereaved?  How many of you are members of churches that repeatedly identify the blessing we all receive as gifts from our God?   

I hope that most of you answered, “I am.” to those questions.  These actions are important to the missions and purposes of our churches and as such should be “practiced” and publicly noticed and appreciated.   The focus in our newsletters, bulletin boards and “Temple Talks” about the things we do as a church not only define our church, but they identify ways to think about a Godly life for each of us.  The practices noticed in our church can become the identity practiced by members of a congregation. 

But we all know, because we have been there, that as much as we appreciate a helping hand with food when we are incapacitated, or words of compassion when we are troubled, or directions along a pathway when we are confused, that we would never choose to live our life in such a “receiving” mode.  We, all of us, need to also feel that we are reasonably capable of giving help, finding solutions to problems, and being in reasonable control of our own lives in the company of people we like and appreciate.  This is as true for older adults as it is for the middle-aged adults as it is for the youth.

So how does a church go about including success in empowering people for the “I am competent” half of the human equation.   Where are the headlines in the bulletin and newsletters proudly touting instances in which congregation has created opportunities for those who receive the churches support to become our teachers in ways we would never have expected?  Where are the “Temple Talks” lauding the older adults in the church who gathered the youth to ask the young for ideas for making life better for all?  Where are the well-publicized discussions of clergy and laity alike asking the less active members of the congregation for help in thinking about and acting on creative ways for fostering new ways to improve life for members of the communities in which they live?

I write these words as an older adult who, though feeling a bit less energy or capability to do what I’d like to do with each passing year, still do not like being given a default identity as the kind of person the church needs to help.  

The solutions lie in considerations of new, creative ways all members of the church, including my older age-mates can be noticed publicly as we contribute in ways that we are able to improve the well-being of our church, our community, our country and our world.  I’d like us to be known not just as a part of the problem but also as a necessary part of the solution.  It would do wonders for our health and well-being and could support our churches in their efforts to help create a better world.


In Praise of Acquaintances

The other day after a Sunday church service, one of the members of the congregation came up to me and said that he had signed up for the course on Gratitude and Beliefs that my colleague and I are teaching this fall in the Cannon Valley Elder Collegium.  I know this person and like him.  When we meet at church we usually make eye contact, nod and smile, and perhaps say “Hello” or “How’s it going?”   If there is something significant going on, like a snowstorm, or a big game, or a forthcoming program at church on mental illness, we might comment even more.  If we bumped into each other downtown or in a store, we would typically follow the same pattern of greeting.  Should we happen to sit next to each other during an informal church gathering, our understandings of each other’s interests and experiences would surely increase a bit.

I feel good during those brief meetings in the hall, whatever form they take.  I’d be hard pressed to say that our greetings make my entire day, but they make me feel cheerful at the moment and they remind me that I’m not invisible, and that I am recognized by a person who I know and appreciate – that I matter to someone. 

If asked, I’d say that this person was an acquaintance.  He is certainly not a stranger, nor is he one of my more intimate close friends. 

Such face-to-face encounters with “acquaintances” in my church give me feelings of “belonging” – a connection that affirms to me that who I am – a person welcomed by others.   It makes me feel at home; connected to my community.  When I sit in church with acquaintances on all sides, and we join together in prayer, liturgy, song and communion, it makes me feel comfortable and content –- I suppose it is a form of gratitude for my faith and those with whom I journey.

To praise interactions with acquaintances in church is not to degrade the importance of close personal friendships that also may be reinforced in church hallways.  But a growing appreciation for the role of acquaintances in our health has fostered a new exploration of the contexts in daily life that support our well-being.  In this case, the advantages of attending church are front and center in their fit.  

A generation ago, psychology made an important shift from research that explored recovery from emotional difficulties to also exploring benefits from enhancing the positive events in daily life.  The research from this positive psychology has increased our awareness of the roots of resilience – an especially important perspective for older adults!   But until recently, the source of positive emotions that enhanced well-being and resilience was seen as lying primarily with close relationships with family and good friends.  But recently, psychology has also begun to explore the importance of increasing the number of one’s acquaintances and the frequency of interactions with them, as influential means of enhancing our well-being and resilience.

In a nutshell, here are some emerging components from acquaintance research:
Both the number of acquaintances we know and the frequency of our pleasant interaction (even minimally) with them will affect our immediate happiness and sense of well-being and “belongingness” (in an organization, like a church).  These are all powerful cognitive and emotional signals to us that life is good;  and such feelings clearly affect our physical and emotional health and our sense of resilience.

What fertile understandings these are for knowing how our churches serve as important sources of spiritual, physical and emotional health in the lives of our parishioners.


MemoryKeepers,  Attentional-Pie  

and Our Disappearing Church

 The organizations with which we align ourselves affect our thoughts about ourselves and others, our emotions, and our actions.  This can be true for the sports team we support, the business we work for, and the church we attend.   Our allegiances affect our identity, and our identity affects what we think, feel and do.   We grow to have cyclical relationships among our identity, the other people in our lives and our “organizations” (groups).

Most of us can recognize the truth of such a cyclical relationship, at least for the formative events that added to our sense of who we are as a person.   What seems to be harder to understand is the important role that our accessible memory of “formative events” plays in our current identity.  It is not an accident that weekly sermons at church cover, more or less, the same ground covered last year at this time.  The continuing reminder of the Word of God is a key part of the awareness and strength our own religious beliefs.

What we pay attention to is like a pie – an attentional-pie.  The more we focus on some aspects of our life, the less attention we have remaining to focus on other elements of our life experiences -- that could have “come to mind”.  Thus, as we consider our personal characteristics that affirm to us who we are (our identity) what comes to mind is necessarily a limited number of the possibilities of current events and events from our history.

Thus, our mind’s attentional-pie determines in many ways, what will come to mind as we think about who we are as a person. The role of memory for the stability of knowing our own identity came to me in an unusual way recently.  It began with a conversation with a friend who has Alzheimer’s Disease;  I’m going to call him Roger.

Roger was able to express to me that as he has a conversation, he feels a sense of enjoyment and appreciation.  He said those conversations bring him “happiness” of some sort.  For instance, I have recently had excellent conversations with Roger about his youth in Alaska and about the reasons he has chosen to open himself for challenging opportunities and new directions throughout his life.  He does seem to realize that in ten minutes he will have completely forgotten our conversation about his experiences. 

For most of us, a recall of our experiences is what keeps us on a reasonably steady life journey.  An ability to remember our experiences can be what gives us an identity (a sense of who we are) because we can “see”, in retrospect, our consistencies of thought, action and feelings.  This is an invisible, but extremely important psychological process.

Roger explained that he is OK with only momentary sources of “happiness”.  In some way he seems to recognize that something is missing.  I can certainly understand how hard it is for any of us to “see” something that isn’t there – although beliefs of all sort play a real-life role here.

Then, as Roger and his wife, and my wife and I were having dinner, Roger’s wife shared a brief story.  She and Roger were walking through their nearby river-side park recently.  They passed near the park gardener.  Roger noticed the well trimmed hedges and said to the gardener, “Thank you for trimming the hedges.  They look nice.”  His wife said that the gardener stopped what he was doing, looked at us in amazement and said in return, “Nobody ever stops to tell me things like that about my work.  Thank you.  It makes a big difference.”

The look on Roger’s face as his wife was telling this story (his story) was one of smiling intensity.  Clearly he appreciated this powerful story being told about himself – something his failing memory would never have enabled him to do.   It seems that listening to somebody else telling about the good things in life that he did (and was doing) was the way that he now had to learn about his own identity – in this case, that of a being a good person who made other people feel good.

Being a good person is truly consistent with his identity as I knew it over the years.  But he truly had no way to remember and understand that, without hearing a story about himself told by somebody else.  Roger’s wife was, for him, his MemoryKeeper.   

The same dynamics are true, it seems to me, for the identity and values we have incorporated over the years that have come from the organizations and the people in those organizations with which we have been aligned -- such as our church.  The problem does not usually come from our lack of ability to remember things, like it is for Roger.  Our lack of remembering what our organization stood for last year or twenty years ago that affected our sense of who we were, is more likely because our current attentional-pie now only brings to mind recent events or only a few of the meaningful events from past years.  The breadth of events and values that were embodied in our church that truly influenced us in the past, are simply not likely to be recalled and thus considered.  This is a serious handicap because it can narrow our perception of our contemporary identity – who we are today.

Furthermore, who we think we are today, can be projected back on our perception of what our church has become as well.  For example, to the extent that we older adults think of ourselves as less capable and resilient, we may see our church as less capable and resilient as well and vice-versa.  (To the extent that we really care about our church, our understanding of our identity and the identity we perceive our church to have can be quite reciprocal.)

Importantly, these issues must be considered in any conversations about how to address our “disappearing church”.

We are, in reality, all MemoryKeepers of our own church.  The fact that we differ in what we recall about the meaning our church to us over the years is perhaps the most significant resource available to a congregation.

As members of a church congregation share their diverse stories (from yesterday and last year and 20 years ago) the reality of a complex, living (and changing) church becomes clearer.   When we combine our memories, hidden strengths and sources of resilience will emerge that never would have been recalled and considered with a more traditional, hierarchical approach.  These newly recalled resources can enable a church to consider a host of creative ways to find resilience in the face of change.

Note:  As the writer of this blog, I find myself becoming very emotional as I write the words of the last three paragraphs.  The reality of what I write is so clear, and yet the approach is hardly ever discussed, let alone tried (as far as I know), that I weep as “disappearing” increasingly becomes an identity of far too many of our churches – and an identity of far too many congregation members as well!


Church as Source of Well-Being 

Churches can be places where people come together and form relationships that are a primary source of their health and well-being.  People show up at their church for lots of reasons.  A primary motive would seem to be to hear and affirm the word of God and to share in that effort with others who (they suppose) are also believers. 

But there is apparently only modest understanding of the potential personal/social benefits of people’s time spent in church and engaging in church activities and programs that bring them together.  In fact churches’ person-to-person social relationship features are often dismissed as irrelevant.  Nothing could be further from the truth. 

People can establish a personal relationship with God that enables them to feel positive outcomes (importantly, I think that the more that a person feels they are contributing to God’s purpose in that relationship, the more powerful a force for good it can become).  However, we know enough about human behavior to know that one’s relationship with God does not represent unusual human behavior. In fact social relationships of all kinds, including those with God, are the essence of being human.  In one of the most detailed and extensive studies of human well-being in natural settings over time, Professor George Vaillant concluded, “The only thing that really matters in life are your relationships….”

Somehow the leaders of the church have to come to grips with this powerful force for good that can emerge in places of worship.  If we don’t notice and understand the broad “what and how” potential of our churches to affect positively the well-being of parishioners, then we are unlikely to seek ways to enhance it.

Our huge mega-churches can offer examples of how to go about offering diverse opportunities for parishioner engagement in church-facilitated activities and programs (-- as well as how to introduce attractive motivations for people to show up at church during the weekly service).  

The trouble with learning from what have been the mega-church successes in recent years is that it is all to easy to assume that the reason for their success are either (1) their size, or (2) the charismatic nature of the senior pastor.   Yes, many people seem more eager to come to a church that they perceive is where “everybody” else wants to attend, and yes, people like to hear uplifting sermons that give them a sense of receiving an emotional gift. 

But so often it is the mega-church’s flexible places and times of service that fit the lives of parishioners, the small group formats that can serve as potential sources of enjoyable social communion, the varied activities that address the interests of diverse members of that congregation, and the creation of gatherings among those with special-needs and unique-interests -- that keep people coming back and serve as opportunities for enhancing health and well-being of all who come.

It is the creation of settings that empower people to find enjoyment, relief, challenge and a sense of belonging that supported my own purpose in beginning this Aging and the Church blog two years ago.  During this time, I have begun to see more clearly that the issue is one of an adaptation of the visions of church leaders at all levels -- from bishops to church councils -- to notice and understand the potential of broadened perspectives on the powerful forces for good that lie within a more open understanding of God’s purposes for His churches.


Believing is Seeing

Our beliefs are a way we “see”.  What we believe and then see become our reality.  Our experts in this believing and seeing business are those who know it because they have experienced it.  

For we novice believers, advice from experts can be confusing.   For example, those who are to us, experts, may talk about the reality of God and His presence in their life.  Yet we may look behind the same bushes, or read the same lectionaries, or hear the same words, yet we may not see anything out of the ordinary. 

I’d like to address this issue from the perspectives of perception, cognition and emotions, although research in neuroscience generally supports and enhances the psychological approaches.

When we truly believe something (when we expect it to be true), not only are we likely to see in our mind what we may not have quite seen with our eyes, but our body will respond in ways that suggest that indeed we did experience it in “real life”. 

The easiest way to understand a common experience for most of us might be to recall a time, perhaps during a dark and stormy night in a location that was unfamiliar to us.  If we hear an unexplainable, ominous noise not too far from our position, we may believe/expect that
it is from a threatening person or animal,
thus our body may shiver with fear or anxiety.  Clearly our mind, our emotions, and our body are all responding to our momentary expectations, believing that a dangerous situation lies just beyond our position (which, hopefully in this example, turned out not to be true). 

If we are walking in a seemingly dried up grass field on a hot day in June, we may not see “beauty”, but if we believe (expect) that
there is truly beauty hidden in the grass if we just look for it,
we may take action and look for it – and perhaps find a small deeply-lobed plant with pink flowers that look like snowflakes growing in the shade of a nearby plant.  A gift of nature that unless we expected to see it, we might not even have bothered to look for it.

If we believe (expect) that if we express gratitude to a clerk at the local grocery store for his thoughtful kindness toward us,
           he will feel good about himself, and therefore we will feel better about ourselves for 
           having “caused” the clerk’s increase in well-being,
then we are more likely to take action and express gratitude to the clerk, and to increase our own sense of well-being in the process.

If we believe (expect) that as we pray to God for healing from our disturbing illness,
that we will feel better
it is more likely that indeed we will feel better (God will have answered our prayers). To believe in God is a perspective that transforms the ways available to give us healing and energy -- it connects us to our own future.  Furthermore, to celebrate in church with others that our belief in God can bring positive outcomes, is a way that helps us all to overcome life’s difficulties.

Incidentally, from psychological research we know that the power of our beliefs (our expectations) to right the wrongs in our life, for instance, is increased if we are feeling down, or confused, or upset, or fearful.  What a wonderful gift; at the very time that we need help the most, our belief that God will answer our prayers may benefit us the most.


In Praise of Tinkering

Tinker is a good word.  As a kid I used to tinker a lot.  I’d tinker with my Lincoln Logs and my Erector Set;  I’d build something or other and if it didn’t turn out right I’d change the design or start over, no biggie.  The purpose of tinkering was not to be “The best there ever was.”, as baseball player Roy Hobbs wanted to be known in The Natural.  When we kids would find a vacant field to play a little ball during those nice summer days, we really were tinkering;  muffing a fairly easy fly ball, striking out, throwing wide of third base and allowing a run to score, no biggie.  Sure, there were times not to tinker, like on a math test, or in a chemistry lab.  But everybody seemed to know the difference

Even when the situation called for doing something important for others, there were times when tinkering was the best approach.  At boy scout camp in the Sierras, for instance, tinkering was often the way things worked – the way we learned stuff.  If the beans cooked by a couple of the boys didn’t turn out so well, we ate more of the potatoes and peas that meal, and those kids did it differently next week when they were the cooks again.  If the raft that my Rattlesnake Patrol put together didn’t hold up as well as the raft made by the guys in the Cobra Patrol, then we tried to find out what they did, so we could do it differently next time.  If we were on a hike and the pack became too heavy for one kid, then other kids took turns helping carry his pack, no biggie. 

Yes at scout camp we had The Boy Scout Manual that guided us in a general sort of way.  But we scouts differed from each other in age, interests, character, family stability and responsibilities, so there was never one right answer to anything.  We had to notice and be open to our new experiences as well as that of others.  We had to be comfortable in being wrong some of the time.  In a learning culture like scout camp, tinkering was everyplace; the important thing was to share what worked and what didn’t.  Working with each other and trying to think creatively seemed to be the way things came out OK over time.

Now that I am grown up and then some, I no longer see tinkering held in such high regard; certainly not in athletic play.    Even computer and SmartPhone games are really tests to see how quickly we players can get to the “right place” that some 20-something programmer living in San Francisco decided was the “right place” for everybody.   Most of our digital games have become teachers of “absolutes” – more like a math class than a scout camp. 

What does all of this have to do with older adults and the church?   I suggest a whole lot.   To the extent that we think that the right answer for church is, say 300 (If we had 300 members we would be doing just great.), or 84 (If I still show up at church when I am 84 I will have had a wonderful life.), or 200 for 20,000 (If every member gave an extra $200, then we could reach our goal of $20,000 for a new bell tower.), then our churches too have become more like math classes than my scout camp.

But aren’t our churches really to help us learn from each other how to find faith, love and to treat our neighbors as ourselves?  Yes, we can learn the general principles from The Bible, but in practice, our diversity of age, interests, character, income, and responsibilities suggests that it takes working with others and creativity to make it all work.  We older adult church members need to notice and be open to our new experiences and be comfortable in being wrong some of the time.   We need to encourage multiple creative approaches and the sharing of what we find works – or doesn’t work.  Listening with respect to each other and trying to think creatively about the issues before us will be the way things come out OK over time.

This, it seems to me, argues for a culture of tinkering in our churches.


   A Mystery of Life and our Belief in God

I’m a city person, and have been for most of my life, but in my youth I worked several years as a summer cowboy on a very large cattle ranch in Wyoming.   Two years ago my family and I revisited Wyoming.  I especially remember walking around the corrals during a Wyoming Ranch Rodeo in which a few of my relatives were riding. 

As I walked through the sagebrush, I found myself expecting my heels to hit the ground before they actually did – it was as if my body thought I was wearing my cowboy boots rather than my loafers.  I found myself reaching my hand up to grab the crown of my hat, in the way one does when wearing a cowboy hat, not the baseball cap I was wearing.  I found myself being alert to different sounds as I walked.  I’m not sure what I was listening for, a rattlesnake perhaps, or a changing wind – I don’t know.  I was just aware of feeling very different. 

My mind and body were transported back in time.  This reemergence of those particular habits-of-my-body and feelings-in-my-mind, were exceptionally surprising to me.  It was a mysterious experience that co-existed with the reality of also being a person who has not been around ranch life for decades.

I tell this story because I was able to identify some specific behaviors and broad feelings that accompanied this revisit to a place.  The next story, a recent revisit to a former church, was also a mysterious experience of feeling simultaneous differences and similarities in my travel backward in time.

The church, St. James Lutheran, is a prominent urban church in downtown Portland, Oregon.  It is where my wife, Jan, and I spent many partial years as we took a sabbatical in Portland, spent some time during summers there, and for a few years after I retired spent about 6 months a year.  It was a congregation in which the homeless, gay/lesbians and visitors of all stripes were always welcome, and in visible weekly attendance

A week ago, when my wife and I walked through the massive front door of historic St. James for the first time in almost 10 years, both my wife and I felt overwhelmed with emotion.  Jan felt at home, and had a powerful sense of comfort and happiness.   In contrast I felt nostalgic and somewhat gloomy.  In my head I could see the pews were good friends used to sit – now empty.   The toll of death and illness among friends has a tragic reach across time as one reenters formerly common space. 

Recalling the impact of my recent revisit to the ranch territory of my youth, I wondered what other ways this reentry into this church was having on me?   The high church traditions were still in place – even more so.  The flow of the people, some still remembered, was familiar.  The liturgy too was familiar – identical with my home church Lutheran congregation in Northfield, actually.   Yet here I was, mysteriously affected by what was in relation to what is.  

Perhaps to be mysteriously transported back in time, on occasion, so that our mind and our body are in two places at the same time, is a special gift allowing us a personal, small glimpse at how the magnificent mystery of a belief in God works in us all.