Learning at the Margins 

I’ve finally noticed something curious about the way churches operate.  As part of our Biblical instructions to treat our neighbors as ourselves, we work out the details for enabling the youth of our churches to travel to disheveled places that need help and support.  Once there our youth work together to build houses, make repairs, clean up messes, or any number of other service-oriented projects.  Gained on the part of our youth are a sense of the importance of doing good for others and a raised feelings of strength and competence in the world.  All is well.

But the Golden Rule of serving our neighbors as ourselves has a necessary flip side.  It is seemingly a one-way operation, from giver to receiver.  Somebody with needs must allow somebody else to give them help and support.  It creates a dependent-independent relationships unless additional steps are taken to allow for reciprocal relationships to develop.  As a matter of fact, most church benevolence programs are built around these types of we-helper à them-helpee relationships.  Those programs do good, that’s for sure.  Building potable water systems and protective housing are sure steps of doing good.  But there is more. 

What about the gifts we can offer others of being open to what they have to offer us;  wisdom perhaps, or help fixing something, or stories of their experiences that broaden our knowledge of people, relationships, cultures or of the world?  Those are real gifts.  In schools and colleges we pay good money to receive such gifts from others.  Can we see ourselves as helping others by opening ourselves up to being helped in one way or another by them?

It makes sense that we want our children and youth to grow up feeling that they are competent doers and helpers of others.  We want them to develop a strong sense of what social scientists call, “agency”, feelings that “I can do things that matter”. 

So why then, can’t we older adults, we folks who have helped make other people’s world go around as teachers, librarians, pilots, business managers, administrative assistants, medical professionals, farmers, mothers, engineers, truck drivers, etc. for some 50+ years, now see it as an opportunity to open ourselves to learning from people at the margins;  to find out what’s on their mind, to listen to their stories, to appreciate their accomplishments – whatever those might be – and to sit and emotionally share in similar sorrows and joys.  And it is the last phrase that is the most important, because it means that we have openly listened to them to learn what makes them happy and to understand what makes them feel distress.  It is then that we will have leveled the playing field.  It is then that we know we have built a sense of trust.  It is then that we become friends.  It is then that we are truly treating our neighbors as ourselves! 


Celebrating Stories:  God and Buffalo Bill

Two years ago, I took a Cannon Valley Elder Collegium class on Buffalo Bill, taught by Bob Bonner, a friend of mine.   Buffalo Bill has always been an important person for me.  I looked at Buffalo Bill from the perspective of a Westerner, since I grew up in California and worked as a cowboy on a ranch in Wyoming.  Yet a number of the written sources for the course on Buffalo Bill were written by men who were Easterners.  Same topic but fascinatingly different perspectives! 

I saw Buffalo Bill as a Westerner, like me.  He lived in my life, so to speak.  In my mind he was an embellished embodiment of who I was.  Whereas some of the East Coast writers looked at Buffalo Bill at a distance, across the frontier, as they wrote about his life.  For them, at least it seemed to me, Buffalo Bill was not a part of who they were.  Buffalo Bill was a dashing and talented, external figure who they found to be important enough to study and write about. 

At first, as I realized this difference in how different people looked at Buffalo Bill, I was a bit bothered.  But as the course moved along, and especially because the instructor himself was from Wyoming, I grew to understand that although there were differences among scholars in how we saw and understood Buffalo Bill, the important thing was that we were all “talking” about the same issue – the story of Buffalo Bill in our own lives.  As it has turned out, this revelation has been, for me, grounds for celebration.

During a recent weekend I revisited this story of turning differences into celebration.

Stacy, a former student in my department at St. Olaf College was visiting Northfield to hear her oldest daughter play the violin in the St. Olaf Christmas Concert.  This very intelligent woman is now a Christian Counselor living in Texas and she and I had been having an ongoing conversation on email about how people saw God and how that played out for them from a psychological perspective. 

Stacy approaches the topic of God’s work among us from the perspective of an evangelical Christian who sees God as not only an important part of herself, but as a fundamental source of all she is.  Whereas I see God as more of an external figure –  but yet a part of my world as I explore human emotions and behavior as a route to a better understanding of how to enable older adults feel that they still matter.

During Stacy and my coffee-conversation the weekend of the Christmas Concert, the memories of my course on Buffalo Bill reappeared in my mind.  The more I thought about the comparisons, the more I realized, again, that centering on our somewhat differing views on knowing God, does not aid our understanding.  

To ask others how God plays out in our lives is to talk and listen to stories; a multitude of broad ranging stories.  We all live storied lives, and our primary means of knowing God and Jesus comes from the stories of the Bible.  In conversations we each bring our perceptions of how the stories of God that come to our mind fit the stories of our own life experiences – and vice versa!  As we connect our narratives into a co-authored version of a larger story, we gain perspectives on how God lives in the lives of people all around us.

For instance, if two people are having a discussion about the role of religion in their lives, one may read the words in the Bible literally, whereas the other may read them contextually;  One person may focus on God’s love for herself, whereas the other person might explore God’s law for the way he treats his  conversational partner, a neighbor, as himself;  One person may seek the mystery of God, whereas his conversational partner may marvel at how God created each of us so that believing in Him is possible.     But these differences are not opposites, as I tried at first to pretend in my course on Buffalo Bill; they are alternative ways of answering common questions. 

These differences are not in competition with each other, the two conversational partners are, presumably, both on the same journey.  Differences are not a matter of faith being external or internal, faith is necessarily both, concomitantly.   The differences between these two conversational partners are not in conflict, they form a whole picture of God in the lives of people -- together.

Our differences are a part of our respective stories – our stories of ourselves with God.   Each of our stories encompass our current recall of our lifetime of experiences plus imagined futures.  Thus, when we share our stories of ourselves with God, it is not like describing the features of a new cell phone, we are sharing our ways of knowing, thinking and feeling.  We are describing ways that shape our joy and our experiences of difficulties.   We are describing what it is that we notice from among an enormous array of possibilities we encounter in daily life.  We are, frankly, describing a part of what is meaningful to us about getting up in the morning.  

Because God can live in and among us all, the more we choose to join with others to talk and listen with openness, honesty, trust and respect for alternative ways of understanding God, especially if there are differences among us, the more we can truly understand the nature of God through the stories of people’s lives. 

When we understand the storied pictures of God through conversations with others, we draw closer together – as neighbors, and that is worth celebrating!


                         Letting Go

I always thought that the verse in Ecclesiastes 3:6  “A time to seek, and a time to lose; a time to keep, and a time to cast away.” was grounded in reality, but frankly it did not give me much guidance for how to “let go”, especially when the stakes were high, such as in the loss of a job. 

Now as an older adult, the theme of “letting go” sometimes seems like the elevator music of our lives.   We say good-bye to our friends, to our homes and to our health.   When people ask what we do, the “used-to-bes” are not only distressing, but boring to boot.   There are wonderful public writers who tell us how physicians have trouble letting go of those of us who are failing.  There are experts who tell us how best to handle letting go of our lovable pets when age takes them from us. 

But there is a more subtle yet distressing change for all of us older folks that seems to unravel over time;  our sense of who we are – our identity.   I don’t argue that this is the most important change in our evolving lives, but neither do I want to argue that we should just, “get over it”.

It isn’t really just the loss of our daily work when we retire that is at the root of this letting go.  We older adults have been through many losses by the time we retire.  We have waved good-by to our kids as they have gone through our front door for the last time as their permanent port in the storm.  We have watched moving vans take our “memoried lives” away from the street where we lived.  We have heard the voices of people we loved for the last time as they left this place with us on earth. 

A woman, Geeg, who just completed a course my colleague, Howard Thorsheim, and I taught, “Gratitude and Belief:  Noticing the Whole Picture” asked us recently, “Could a course on Gratitude be a ‘jumping off place’ for a course on “Letting Go”?  -- a course that asks, “How does one sort through and decide what to let go and what to keep?”

As I started to think about Geeg’s question, it overwhelmed me;  how does one start a course discussing the pain of people letting go of their disappearing church that has been their lifeline to both heaven and earth.  How does one talk with an older person about getting over the loss of freedom and contribution when he or she can no longer drive and thus can no longer easily help friends or volunteer to assist at the church meals for the poor?  How does one help a person grapple with their own disappearing selves when nobody ever talks about some competency or quality of theirs?

Then two things came together.  First was the recognition that the pain we feel from our “good-by saying” has specific changes associated with them.  For instance, the understanding that for men as they retire, one thing that happens is that people tend to no longer “express esteem or respect for a competency or personal quality of theirs” came from Howard’s and my research with 3,000 people in church congregations.  Second, Geeg wasn’t in fact asking us to start with the pain, she was asking if we could start with the gratitude.   So, for instance, rather than lament the lack of comments about our ability to produce flawless accounting sheets, or the loss of twice being called the best-ever fourth grade teacher, why not start with celebrating those times when “we were somebody” whether that somebody was a mother running a household, or a plumber saving the day for people whose houses were flooding.

Or rather than lament the feelings of absence one gets from a half-filled church, let’s turn our changing church into new possibilities for seeing God.  Let’s find and celebrate the “good” that still flourishes at church on a daily basis.  Let’s share stories about the positive influence our church has on so many people, including those who have been children in our Sunday Schools and have become solid citizens and even leaders in the community.

But… importantly, such celebrations are not suggested as being like the ornate glass vase we receive when we retired that symbolized the culmination of one’s useful life.   We suggest that the celebration of lives be a time of looking together at possibilities for noticing new ways of being (who we are). 

The key, of course, is “taking small steps together”, so that stories shared among all of us are not only an inspiration but like candy jars full of hope as well.  If, over time, we can learn to listen to each other with open ears, we will hear the whole story of the joys as well as the pain that were always a part of our life;  then and now.  In doing so we may begin to see that the joys of life still abound.  If we truly believe that we will “find the good” right here, all around us, right now, then we will indeed “see the good” and that truth will set us free.  (John 8:32!)

PS  An important collaborator on this vision of turning our fears of change into an ally is Geeg, an insightful student from our Gratitude class.  In response to this “Letting Go” piece, she writes:

“As I write these words I am thinking to myself....if I truly am going to practice my Christianity then I have to GO WITH [my thoughts about letting go]. Easy to do sitting at the computer writing.....hard to do when life throws a curve ball.  Oh boy....…letting go of good stuff is so hard.  It feels like there will never be good stuff again.  Feeling gratitude becomes HARD WORK at a time when one is weak, tired, unfocused/ redirected and not up to HARD WORK.  So, like we talked about in class, maybe the work won't be so hard if the practice has been honed earlier;   A jumping off place.  Maybe the work wouldn't be so hard if it was practiced and supported earlier with someone else on a regular basis (kind of like working out);  Heck, maybe if at the bottom of every prescription there were the words  "Take 2x daily with meals and 3 gratitudes"!  Maybe the challenge is to kind of do a “Gratitude Find Waldo” in every maze and detour of life events.  Easy for me sitting at a computer tapping away at the keys.....hard to do out there in the rest of the hours of the day.  Guess our faith allows for that though.......practice not perfection.  Don't Should On Myself. Let Go---Let God.

The words from DeWitt Jones’ video, “Celebrate What’s Right With The World” that we showed in class, come to mind, " One never knows where it's all going to go....we just have to do it and trust".

Prayers of Celebration:

Giving Life to Older Adults

I was reading recently about a psychologist at Yale who says that our stereotypes of older adults affect our health as we age.  Those of us who have a more positive view of aging (that older adults are capable, active and full of life) seem to live an average of 7 years longer than those of us who have a negative view of aging (that older adults are sickly, helpless, and grumpy!)  Wow, I thought, that’s a pretty big difference. 

Recent research by some of those same psychologists at Yale and Berkeley further refines our understanding of age-related stereotypes.  They found that negative stereotypes can be changed through current events in our lives. 

The extent to which this is true for those of us in church congregations is worth investigating.  It means that our church can be an important player in the health, well-being and length of life of the older adults in their congregation.

For instance, during the prayers of the church each Sunday, it seems that the majority of the names listed, are those of older adults.  Sunday after Sunday, Month after Month, Year after Year, the message sinks in;  we hold up the names of older adults because the are sickly and in need of our help.

Perhaps, if our churches not only held up our names during the prayers of the church because of our recent falls or illnesses, our churches could also identify in prayers of celebration, older adult members in their congregations who are capable, active and full of life in one way or another.

“Why would you do that?” you might ask.  “Why single out a few older adults each Sunday who took a long bike trip, are active on a city committee, or took their grandchild to visit colleges? for example.”  

The reason is because the ways we get noticed are important to our sense of who we are – our identity.  If we older adults always seem to be the ones who need the care and concern of the church, that’s the way we think about ourselves.  But if we and our age-mates are also identified for our contributions to life around us, no matter how modest, we older adults can see ourselves as active and engaged.   It will affect our health!

“Why not do that for everyone, then?” you might next ask.   “Sure, why not.” I’d say. “Go for it!”  But this is a blog about older adults.  So at least for now I’ll stick to that topic.  


Why Fix The Roof
If It Isn’t Raining?

Issues of war and peace grab our mind.  Bad things happening in our neighborhood catch our attention.   The serious illnesses of friends and acquaintances draw our empathy and foster action of prayer, cards, calls, food, and help with errands.

Then what do we do on so-called “normal days”?  On those bad-free days, do we engage life in a way that strengthens our sense of resilience in preparation for those difficult days that we know will come again?  Or, do we think, “Why Fix The Roof If It Isn’t Raining?”

Church congregations can be like that, springing into action when members of the congregation are sick or have an accident or fall into difficult times.  But absent terrible news, churches may not understand how important it is to help their congregation members strengthen the reach of their collective resilience.   But, how could they know;
Our culture stresses the power of the individual.  It is easy to forget that we are all created as social creatures.  We learn early as babies, that we are physically and socially dependent on others for everything, but we fight that dependence later as teens when our newly sanctioned legal freedoms promote our struggles to be independent.  In those very same years, however, teenagers also confront their strong physical attraction toward others – and then more or less live with that independent/dependent bewilderment for the rest of their lives.

Yet in messages of strength, courage and leadership, our culture is clear that it is “I” as an individual who is responsible for my own health and well-being – until “I” am hurt, sick or become old, then “I” must suddenly flick the switch and become a ward of the care of others.  “That’s the way it works”, we are told.

Where do we learn about our God-given relationship-oriented-spiritual-heart in all of this?  Where do we learn – where do our churches learn – that we are all a part of the well-being processes for each other?   Experience, perhaps?

Before my wife and I had cancer at the same time a few years ago, I saw myself as highly independent and very resilient.  I was not worried about doing what needed to be done;  I just knew I could do it.  I saw “resiliency skills” as being a part of who I was as an individual and since my ideas about myself were so solidly culturally appropriate, I never had any reason to think otherwise.

Then came cancer, and everything I believed about my resilience changed.  I will never be so fooled by cultural messages again!

I found that not only could I not, by myself, effectively help my wife with her cancer, but I really couldn’t help myself very well either.  It took a proliferation of comforting stories about what to expect from colleagues, continuing affirmations of our strengths from friends, prayers from our church, and diverse positive conversations with laughter and kindness to requests for help, from acquaintances, friends and family.

When those “very bad days” were over for us thanks to that circling of the wagons of reciprocal support from our friends, family and acquaintances, I realized how important it was to spend time during “normal days” filling our watersheds of resilience with what I now saw as “social resilience” not “personal resilience”.

During those “normal days” are times when we need to work and play together with others to develop and sustain the reciprocal relationships of knowing, caring and supporting among those who will be a part of the circling of the wagons team -- for adding to our resilience the next time the “very bad days” happen.

Furthermore, I realized that as I age, it becomes more difficult to engage others -- my energy wanes and developing and sustaining social resilience becomes more difficult with each passing year.  I now realize that to encourage the filling of people’s watersheds of resilience is perhaps the most important social task that a church can do for its older adult members.  

Churches must learn to divide their time between helping the congregation circle the wagons of support and comfort for those of us who are having “very bad days”, and at the same time create settings for their congregational members to gather for fun, challenge and learning, and in the process fill their watersheds of resilience.

We are diverse people, we older adults, and a universal approach for filling our watersheds of resilience will not satisfy everyone.  But if the leaders of our churches can find former leaders among their older adult community, those capable people can, by using their “leftover talents”, help build diverse but sustainable approaches to meeting the needs of the older adult community for (1) exercise, (2) health enhancing behavior (including proper nutrition), and (3) volunteer possibilities. 

But the most important will be for the church to develop enjoyable ways for older adults to bring their ideas, meaningful issues, hopes, and dreams to church, to share with those who listen and accept their questions and ideas, and work together to transform those creative ideas into workable processes for enhancing health and well being.   


Balanced Conversations: 

                        A Matter of Community

I have been having a good conversation online with a man I do not know other than the fact that he is the president of a moderate-sized Lutheran church congregation.  We have been discussing the evolving position by the ELCA for welcoming gay and lesbian people, including gay and lesbian church leaders into the fold.  [Note: The gay/lesbian issue is merely an example of the importance of balance in communication that my friend and I are discussing.]

I personally welcomed this change in ELCA support for the gay and lesbian concerns.  Not that I would have 20 or 25 years ago. But thanks to conversations over the years with a friend-of-ours’ daughter, a lesbian, who we have known personally since she was a baby, my wife and I have become advocates for appreciating our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters completely.  It has become real to us that we are all equal as human beings in God’s eyes, regardless of our sexual orientation. 

However, my Internet friend and congregational leader basically said to me, “Whoa, not so fast.  Just because you are convinced that the ELCA made a good move in their votes, does not mean that all ELCA members feel that way.”  As he was telling me about this controversial issue in his church, he said,

“When we were in a recent call process it took all we had as leaders to hold the congregation together, as members on both sides wanted to have it out;  a my side vs. your side battle for the congregation.   I would not let them slug it out.  I used the statements in ELCA documents to show that each side was 'accepted' and we came together and this year accepted a set of core beliefs that don't push that topic one way or the other.  Declaring a winner in this fight is not core to being Christian. Therefore we agreed as a congregation to abide together.  I had to take this approach because our mission would not survive with a significant fragment of either side remaining.  So sticking it out together with our diversity of views on this topic is slowly moving us forward.

However, when the top down church position is clearly slanted and the more conservative members of my church call me out on the fact that all positions were supposed to be OK, how I am supposed to respond?  Where is there anything, an article, an editorial, any official statement of any kind balancing the equation so that those who stand opposed to ordination of gay and lesbian people can have their say?”

I thought about my friend’s comments.  Ironically, I talk about the importance of helping people notice and tell others about doing good in life, i.e. “doing unto others as we would have them do unto us”,  I know that the personal meaning inside that well known Biblical injunction is a matter of subjective belief based on a person’s experience and the influence of their friends and other social persuasions.  

As a result, I have become increasingly aware of the importance of listening to public statements from those ELCA members who do not support the evolution of the church toward complete acceptance of gay and lesbian people in all positions in the church.  It is in the midst of trying times like these that it remains important that we church community members continue to talk about diverse but meaningful issues together as an acknowledgement of our respect for each other – all under the umbrella of God’s children.


Benevolence Reconsidered

I was talking with a good friend and faithful church member about our church’s benevolence gifts the other day.  I was lamenting the fact that the church seems to spend most of its benevolence money on foreign missions while meeting needs in our own community and especially in our own church with some reluctance.   My friend seemed somewhat surprised that there were “marginal” folks in our midst.  I think that my friend assumed that those are people who live or go to church elsewhere.

What’s going on here?  Are those “worthy” of our church’s benevolence being painted with the same ideological brushes as our national media paints recipients of government entitlements and need-based assistance?

Perhaps a part of the problem is our criteria of “need”.  As individuals, we can think of the words needy, marginal, deprived, disadvantaged, or poor with some degree of clarity in our own mind.   We may “know” who those people are and what they look like – disheveled perhaps, or without transportation, or strange, or sick, or old.  Everybody else, we may think, can get by just fine on their own, like we do.  

But “need” is a subjective phenomenon.  “Marginal” has very different descriptive criteria for different people.   So to focus our 10% benevolence money on foreign mission work, for instance, can miss the needs closer to home that would make both church and community stronger and more vital.

Perhaps a part of the problem is our divergent understandings of issues such as the meaning of benevolence, the instructions from the Gospel and the components of our well-being.

Benevolence is defined in the dictionary as good will or disposition to do good for others;  an act of kindness; a generous gift.  There is nothing here to suggest that the recipient of benevolence must be the poorest of the poor in a foreign country.  Even the Synonyms listed in the dictionary (favor, boon, courtesy, grace, indulgence, kindness, mercy, service) only note one possibility, “mercy” that suggests that benevolence is related to a form of pity for others. 

The Bible discusses many ways that help us better understand benevolence:
In Acts: ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive.”
In Galatians: , “…let us do good to everyone...”
In Romans: “Let each of us please his neighbor for his good, to build him up.”
And especially in Mark: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”

Nothing here suggests we share our benevolence only with the most downtrodden in the world.

And then there is the whole confusion around issues of giving vs. receiving.  Certainly most of us know from our personal experience that we feel good about ourselves when we contribute to life in meaningful ways, and that we actually begin to feel down and somewhat helpless when we are just recipients of other people’s benevolence’s over time.   So to love our neighbor and build her or him up, we need to be open to receiving his or her offers of help to us so that he or she gains in their sense of well-being and health. 

But perhaps the problem is that we don’t really know how to empower people in order to enable them to build a better life.  We know how to give money, and cans of food, and old clothes, and used furniture. But do we know how to make our church a place where if people come, they feel they are built up, that they find a sense of well-being, and that people pay attention to them and ask for ways that they are able to contribute to life in our midst? 


Through the Front Door Conversations 

As Complimentary to Steeple Teachings

Must conversations and understanding of church always start by coming through the steeple with God’s words?  Can the conversations and understanding of church also start by going through the front doors and listening to what’s on the minds of the people of that community of God? 

Both approaches, through the steeple and through the front door, assume the betterment of our life together through faith, hope, grace and the love of neighbor as oneself. 

The “potential for good” from listening to what is personally meaningful and on the minds of people of God’s community accessed through the front door, can be seen as complimentary to essential teachings of God accessed through the steeple. 

I argue that if we don’t begin soon addressing both the healing and the empowering components of our local church by listening to conversations started with what is on the mind of people in local churches, we will never solve the several difficulties our contemporary church is facing.

I am going to paraphrase the thoughts of Mark D. Roberts in his Reflections on Christ, Church and Culture: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/markdroberts/series/what-is-a-church/  drawn 8/27/2014.
The very thing that our church should be focusing on – our life together as a community – is hampered by misdirected efforts to focus as a church on larger societal issues through pronouncements.  We must try harder to get our own act together in local congregations.

We need to pay more attention to the regular, tangible, essential gatherings of our local church community.

It means that the larger church body needs to put more energy into nurturing (empowering) local church engagements. 

It means that both the larger church body and the local congregations need to be open to new structures that support both broad church and local congregation purposes, rather than holding on to structures of the past that serve existing hierarchies but do not support the common life and mission of local churches.

It means that we would strive harder to form complimentary gatherings that truly reflect the gospel of Jesus Christ, one that shines as a light into our dark world and gives hope to individual and community alike.

It means that we would see our local gatherings as essential, not only to our congregational life, but also to the health of our local communities.

It means we would care as much about God’s justice unfolding within the unique contexts of local churches as we do about the overarching message of God’s justice from church hierarchies.

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.