Friday, September 30, 2016

On Being a Quakarene

My father was a Quaker -- part of the Society of Friends.  As were his parents. And their parents before them.  Various family lines go way back, one to William Penn's settlement, others from England through Virginia to the western push into the Carolinas, moving north to Indiana only when war clouds loomed on the horizon in the mid-1800s.

In contrast, I was raised in the Church of the Nazarene.  At age eight, I insisted on joining the church along with my parents and older brothers.  Two years later, in 1968, I carried a flag at the 17th General Assembly of the Church of the Nazarene in Kansas City.  I have now attended ten General Assemblies.  I was a student at a Nazarene institute of higher education for two years and a parent of Nazarene students for twelve.  My older daughter is a Nazarene pastor with an M.Div from NTS and has an article in the latest issue of Holiness Today!  I'm all in.

Still, I am sometimes acutely aware of the Quaker DNA passed on to me from my ancestors.  It manifests itself in several ways, including:

1. Pacifism.  My natural instinct is to put violence into the same category as profanity: a sign of weakness, demonstrating either an underdeveloped vocabulary or little imagination.  I want to say, "Oh, come on, people.  Surely you can do better than that!"

2. "Authority issues"  I put this in quotes because I've actually heard those words directed toward me.  The Quakers take seriously the instructions of Jesus in Matthew 23:8-12 and advocated equality long before it was popular to do so.  It's a view that sets well with me.

3.  Inward Light.  I love the journey I'm on with God and the way his Spirit speaks to me and guides me by many means.  Although I listen carefully to a variety of mentors, I have yet to run across any individual I would trust to be my spiritual director.

4.  Silence.  Quaker meetings are known for their silences as those gathered wait for the movement of the Spirit in and among them.  I value silence in my life.

5.  Simplicity.  The simple life tugs at me more than any fancy get-up in either appearance or possessions.

These Quaker values have often left me out of step with what I encounter in the Church of the Nazarene.

1.  Pacifism.  I have found a spirit of militarism that seeks to destroy anyone or anything perceived as a threat.  Even when there is no physical violence, I still see the need to strike out against others as a sign of weakness and want to say, "Come on, people.  Surely, there's a better way!"

2.  Authority issues.  In the hierarchy of the Church of the Nazarene, pastors are set apart -- more accountable to higher authorities, more responsible, having more authority.  There is a tendency to view congregations as flocks of sheep of small intellect in need of a rod-carrying shepherd to direct them.  Hierarchy is built into everything we do, setting some up higher and encouraging others to follow in submission.

3.  Inward Light.  Going along with the view of the pastor as a shepherd of intellectually- and value-challenged sheep, there is often little regard for the witness of the Spirit to individuals, particularly those who are seen as "less."  This would include lay people in general, but particularly women and children, racial minorities, sexual minorities, and those less fluent in the language spoken by the leaders.  There is a sense that the leaders go up the mountain and bring down the commandments (and vision) to the huddled (and stupid) masses below.

4.  Silence.  I can't count how many times I've been encouraged to be more demonstrative (louder) concerning my faith.  Silence is regarded as a lack of life rather than proceeding out of an inner calm.
I tend to lean the other way, associating shouting with either a lack of underlying substance ("If I say it louder, I'll be more convincing, right?") or the world gone out of control. When I'm confident of my position, I find no reason to raise my voice apart from an emergency situation.

5.  Simplicity.  This value is actually a shared one if one looks at the early Church of the Nazarene, but is not always acknowledged as a goal worth pursuing in present times.

It's a considerable distance from where I live to the nearest Friends Meeting.  And I suspect there is a gap between the lives of the members of that meeting and any idealistic faith community I might conjure up for them based on historic values.  The ideals coursing through my inner being don't necessarily match any real life faith community.  It's just interesting to observe the impact they have on me and how they sometimes leave me marching to the beat of a different drummer in the Church of the Nazarene.

Related posts: 
Why I Go to Church 
Why Ministry in the Church Is Difficult

Friday, September 23, 2016

A Library Story

Years ago, I wrote an unfinished story.  I will now publish it.  It needs an illustrator. It has several possible endings because when I wrote it I didn't know the ending. Now I do.

The Rowdy Young People at the Library

by Marsha Lynn
the Library Director

Once upon a time in a not-very-exciting little town in a not-very-exciting state in the middle of the country, far from exciting things like big cities and mountains and beaches, there was a library with some pretty exciting stuff inside.   At least the people who worked in the library thought so.  There were magazines to tell the people in the not-very-exciting town about what was happening in more exciting parts of the world.   There were newspapers that excitedly reported the most interesting happenings in the not-very-exciting town.   There were computers that connected the people of the not-very-exciting town to the whole wide wonderful world. There were videos that showed pictures of the whole wide wonderful world and told stories about it.  Best of all ...

 ... there were books in the little library in the not-very-exciting town.

The people who worked in the library thought the books were the best part.   Not only did books connect people to the whole wide wonderful world; books took people to worlds that used to exist or could exist or maybe could not exist but are fun to think about.  With no batteries required.  Only imagination.

Unlike big libraries in big exciting cities with lots of money and lots of workers . . . the little library in the not-very-exciting town had only a little money and a few workers. Yet, the library was sometimes a busy place.  It was right on Main Street and was a warm, friendly place.   In the afternoons and evenings when school was out and work was done and most of the stores were closed, people would come to the library ...

... and make copies of important papers or take tests for classes at far-away universities.   They would look at magazines telling what was happening in the wide wonderful world and look around at the world using the computers.  Or they would play quiet computer games.  Or they would borrow books or videos to take home.

Most of the people who came to the library were quiet and polite.  But not all of them.  Some of the people were children, too young to know about being quiet and polite at libraries.  Others were people who should have known about such things but didn’t.

There were young people in the not-very-exciting town – too old for the children’s story hour at the library; too young to be busy with grown-up tasks.  What they wanted was excitement!   But it’s hard to find excitement in a not-very-exciting town.  So they learned to make their own excitement. Sometimes they took their excitement to the library.  They talked and laughed with loud voices.  They said words that shouldn’t be said at the library.  They did things that shouldn’t be done at the library.  In short, they were rowdy!*

*rowdy: rough, disorderly, quarrelsome.

The quiet and polite people in the library said to the library workers, “Oh, those rowdy young people!  Something must be done!”

The library workers said to the library director, “Oh, those rowdy young people and those complaining people in the library!  Something must be done!”

The library director had no one to tell.  Sighing a deep sigh, she added “Do something about the rowdy young people” to her library to-do list.  Then she thought and thought and thought about what to do.  She even prayed about what to do.

The library director remembered that her husband had told her she should write a book about the library.  So she wrote a book about the rowdy young people at the library.  But like many people who start to write a story, she didn’t know how her story would end. Which ending should she choose from among all of the possible endings?

Possible ending #1:

The library director left her family behind each evening that the library was open so she could go to the library and say, “Be quiet!” “Don’t use those words!” “Quit bothering him!” and “No skateboarding in the library!” to the rowdy young people.   While the library director was at the library, her husband ate pizza with friends without her.  He went to the movies without her.  When her grown-up children came home for their Christmas vacation, they went shopping without her.   The library was still full of loud and impolite people, including the library director who didn’t want to be there and yelled at the rowdy young people.  The library director did not like this ending.

Possible ending #2:

The library director put a sign on the door of the library.  It said, “No rowdy young people allowed!”  This made the library director and all the workers at the friendly little library sad.  Where would the rowdy young people go?  Where would they take all the excitement they made if they were no longer allowed to bring it to the library? The library director did not like this ending.

Possible ending #3 
AKA, the real ending to this real story:

The library director went to the rowdy young people and said, “Hi, there.  I am the library director.  I have been hearing about you and need your help.  We need to work together to make the library a nice place for people to come. "

Then the library director talked to the rowdy young people whenever they came into the library for a few days.  She took her laptop and sat with the rowdy young people.  She even signed up for Facebook so she could be friends with the rowdy young people.

The library was not quite so exciting when the library director was around.  But it was still warm and friendly in the library on cold winter afternoons.  So the no-longer-quite-so-rowdy young people kept coming back.  Even when the library director went to the movies with her husband and grown-up children, the library was still a warm and friendly place with only a little rowdiness. The quiet and polite people in the library were happier.  The library staff was happier.  And the library director had new Facebook friends.  This made her very happy.


Friday, September 16, 2016

On Online Communities and Faith

In May 1994, my husband and I crammed our first Windows computer system into our minivan and brought it home.  Included was a floppy disk for installing America Online software.  We were about to join the internet age. And our telephone bills would reflect that new era.

Before long I discovered online discussion groups.  People with common interests were starting to find each other.  It opened up a new world to me.  For years I had struggled with spiritual questions it seemed no one else was asking.  First AOL, then the World Wide Web gave me access to people discussing the topics that nagged at my soul, people with journeys similar to mine whom I wouldn't know any other way.  I was also introduced to new authors, such as Brian McLaren and Rob Bell.  I found a new kind of Christianity in postmodernity.  I discovered I already new the fundamentals of the language before I even knew it existed or what it was called.  It was revolutionary!

More than twenty years have passed since those initial adventures in online communities.  Many of my early mentors have moved on.  Social media has become a place of raised voices and contention, especially when discussing politics or religion. In what has long been my favorite community I'm now finding fewer people walking the path I'm walking  I'm relying more on blogs and podcasts for fresh thoughts and guidance down new paths.

One thing I appreciate about online conversation is its pace.  It allows time to think before responding.  And even to edit one's response after further consideration.

It may be time to seek out or form new communities, but I definitely need internet-based communication in my life.  Without it, my world is too small.

Monday, August 29, 2016

On Writing Poetry

This may be crazy talk, but I am close to being frustrated enough with what is available for congregational singing in churches to create my own offerings.  This requires two things, just to start, and then more to continue.  To start, the two requirements are:  1. Lyrics. 2. Music.

I mentioned to someone once that the poets of today are not publishing books of poetry.  They are writing lyrics for songs.  The person with whom I was speaking disagreed with that statement, but I think I'll stand by it.  Almost all of the exposure most people get to poetry comes in the form of song lyrics.

Composing music comes easily to me.  The first time I did it was when I was a teen playing the organ for a wedding.  There was a delay and I was out of music.  I didn't want to go back to start again on one of my songs, so I just wandered through a typical chord progression, weaving an impromptu melody until we were ready to proceed.  As far as I know, no one noticed.  Composing good music may be beyond me, but if all we need is a melody for some words, it doesn't seem like a big deal to me.

Poetry, on the other hand ...  This is not part of my skill set.  It would be nice to find someone else to do that part, but I haven't found such a person.  While I wait, I suppose I may as well try my own hand at it and see what emerges.

That said, here is attempt #1:

  It stirs up fear in me,
  In my heart. It's an art
  I don't know.

  How can I let it flow
  From my heart to the place
  I would go?

Words on words
Must they rhyme?
Must they beat
Out in time?

More than words,
Thoughts unfurled.
Seeking space
In this world.

  I must perfect this art
  If I want to impart
  To the heart

Of this world
  All the stuff I feel
  Swelling up in my heart
  Full and real.

  Is it my destiny?
  To write words never heard,
  Never shared?

  May be the death of me.
  How can I squeeze my thoughts
  Into rhyme beating time?
  How can words stuck in structure
  Lead the life that I picture
  For the fruit of my work
  In poetry?

Sunday, July 26, 2015

On Home-owner challenges and changing times

Our daughter, son-in-law, and two adorable grandchildren stayed with us a few days this month. On their last full day with us, my daughter said, "The washing machine is making a funny noise." I listened to the noise and wrote it off as simply part of the cycle, clicking off time until the next part of the cycle. It wasn't until they left that I figured out it was clicking off time instead of agitating the clothes. Oops.

On the day they left, they said, "By the way, the drains backed up in your guest bathroom and shower. We have mopped up the floor, but there seems to be a problem."

Why does a house wait until there are guests in residence to set loose the demons???

In response to all this, we shut off the water, closed up the house, and left for a week. (Our plans were already made.) I scheduled a service call two weeks out with Sears for the washer and tried to get hold of a plumber. But when we got home the drain seemed fine, so I canceled that appointment. And Sears pointed out that the washer is thirteen years old and I remembered it has other problems, so I canceled that appointment, as well.

Well, of course, the drain didn't actually heal itself. When I called again, our favorite contractor came out, looked at the 25-foot shrub at the corner of the house and said, "There's your culprit!" The next day, he brought out equipment to dig up the drain lines and, sure enough, the thirsty shrub had managed to worm a root system into the drain exactly like he said. (We had a drought three years ago and he said he's seen a lot of that sort of thing since.)

And, of course, the washer didn't heal itself either so I went shopping. I had an appointment close to a city shopping area that week so I went and stood in Best Buy and looked at washers and said, "Yep, those are washers all right." Then I stood in Sears and looked at washers and said, "Yep, those are washers all right." And I couldn't figure out why I drove all that way to stand there and look at them. How was I planning to choose one? How would I know if they even have the model I really want?

So I came home and did research on washers and compared features and read Consumer Reports and read user reviews and compared prices at stores in multiple cities at various points of the compass and then ordered a washer from Sears online. I did that Thursday evening and it's scheduled to arrive and be installed tomorrow morning.  That's three days earlier than the repair was scheduled.

It seems that we used to go shopping at stores when we needed new stuff, but that whole experience felt a bit foreign to me last week. I realized I go months, maybe even a year or more between visits to the mall. What's the point? As I walked past all the cool stuff in Best Buy to get to the appliances in the back of the store, I noticed there was a lot of cool stuff, but I wasn't sure why I would want to buy any of it there.

Changing times of life and changing times.

Friday, October 17, 2014

A Healthy Church Is a Growing Church(?)

A healthy church is a growing church.  Someone quoted someone saying this in a recent conversation.  The question at hand was how to encourage (numerical) growth.  My attempt to respond was weak.  My response is one that needs to be processed in writing rather than subjected to the jumble of spoken words.

A highly influential book in my life is Hannah Whitall Smiths' A Christian's Secret to a Happy Life.  One of the most influential concepts in that highly influential book involves Jesus' illustration in John 15 of the branches and the vine.  (Jesus is the vine; we are the branches; God the Father is the gardener.)  The author points out that the way to bear fruit (which is not identified) is to focus on abiding in the vine rather than straining to bear fruit.  Fruit is a natural and inevitable result of focusing on our connection to the vine and accepting the pruning shears of the gardener.

I have found this concept useful in many areas of life.  Many things we most desire cannot be obtained by seeking them directly.  Rather, they are byproducts of efforts in a totally different direction.  Happiness is an example.  People who focus on their own happiness aren't likely to find true happiness.  Happiness is a byproduct of healthy relationships and healthy living.  Focusing on one's own happiness tends to damage the relationships that have the most potential to bring happiness!

So what about church growth?  While I agree that a healthy faith community is likely to be attractive to others, I think we are on the wrong track when we make growth our goal.  Growth is a natural byproduct of a healthy community.  Just as the individual who focuses on connecting to Jesus Christ will bear fruit in keeping with the strength of that connection, the faith community that focuses on seeing as Jesus saw and loving as Jesus loved and nurturing a spirit of compassion like that of Jesus for those who are harassed and helpless will be irresistibly attractive and bear the fruit of growth.  Perhaps connection can be assessed and measured by numerical growth, but when that growth is lacking, it's the connection to the vine that needs our attention.

In my own ministry to children right now I'm going with the philosophy that less is more.  Fewer children means more opportunity for one-on-one conversations, more mentoring.  There were seven in the beginning and I haven't looked for more.  But three more started coming.  Then three 7th-grade boys started drifting over from the teen group to forage for snacks in our area.

Can I do with thirteen kids what I could do with seven?  These are high-risk kids.  Can I foster spiritual growth as effectively with more?

I will accept all who desire to come.  I suspect the group will max out at a fairly small size until we develop enough inner resources to effectively welcome and nurture more.  Meanwhile, I will focus on nurturing those present rather than looking past them to those not yet showing interest in the group.  Maybe it will be a big fail to do so, but connection is my passion and we aren't there yet.  Growing the group by focusing on growth rather than on spiritual nurture could lead to a shallowness that would be difficult to overcome.

Do healthy churches grow?  Yes, barring liabilities such as a transient population I suspect they do.  But I think numerical growth is a lousy goal.  It's like setting a goal of so many grapes per branch while neglecting to make sure the branch stays firmly connected to the vine.  If growth is your ultimate goal, you would do well to set it completely aside while you nurture the connection between the branches and the vine.

Extraordinarily Ordinary

Left behind. Yes, it's the name of a book series with related film productions, but that's not what this is all about. In this case, left behind is how I'm feeling.

Several years ago I read The Irresistible Revolution: Living as an Ordinary Radical by Shaine Claiborne and wrote a review which brought an unusual amount of traffic to my blog. I was a bit embarrassed by the attention because it was a less than positive review of a worthwhile and popular book.  While I appreciate the efforts of the author in inner-city ministry, I felt at the time like he would have no regard for someone living a life of radical obedience to Jesus Christ in a more rural setting. Is there a place for ordinary radicals where I live or will urban ministries always have more glamor?  Does true ministry involve packing up and moving to the inner city?  If everyone does that who will do ministry to my hurting neighbors?

I'm still trying to bloom where I am planted rather than transplanting myself elsewhere and have moved on to other books.  Many of them likewise describe urban ministry but I find inspiration in them to get outside my comfort zone in ministering to people who are part of my rural community but still aren't like me.  Or like those with whom I gather on Sunday.

More recently, the only active 20-somethings in the aging congregation of which I'm a part announced they are planning to start a new ministry for their peers -- young adults who are spiritual but alienated from traditional church settings.  As a first step, they will step away from our congregation and seek alternative settings for worship.

This is very interesting to me.  I realize I don't fit their target demographic, but I would love to be part of the conversation.  Alas, it is not to be.  I'm in their rear view mirror as they move toward a shiny new ministry.  My books and what I have gleaned from them don't interest them.  They need to do their own exploration.

This week I found out the leader of a trip I'm taking in January won't be leading it after all.  He has accepted a position with a group specializing in new church plants.  I knew he was involved in that sort of thing and was looking forward to interacting with him maybe a little as we traveled, though his ministry looks different from mine.  Now he has moved on.  Others I thought would be in the group have also dropped out because of conflicts with other ministries.  Even when signing up to go where I thought they were going, I have still been left behind.

As part of my own journey, I extracted myself from the organizational structure of the local church in order to focus on ministry inside and outside the church building.  I hear that many Christians have no friends who aren't also Christians.  I may have fit that description at some points in my life.  I now spend much time in public places interacting with people whose lives are being torn apart by sin.  But I also still show up for church services or activities -- Sunday morning and evening, Wednesday evening, and more. There are many hurting people who show up there looking for a message of hope.  And it's my home.  I should be there to welcome them.

I've been sharing my journey into rural community ministry with an online fellowship group as something new and different.  But recently, I was reminded that I'm still in a traditional church setting.  What might feel radical and different to me looks extraordinarily ordinary from a more detached perspective.  On Sunday mornings I facilitate an adult Sunday School group.  On Wednesday evenings I try to speak some sort of word into the chaos of children's ministry with too wide an age range.  So very ordinary.  For a while I had a teen helper I brought in from the outside world.  My first success story in the making!  But she now has a job and can no longer be involved.

Jesus told a story about a farmer who went out to sow.  Some seeds fell on the path and were eaten by birds.  Other seeds fell in rocky soil and sprang up quickly but then died for lack of roots.  Other seeds grew but the growth was choked out by weeds.  But some seed fell on good soil and yielded a bountiful harvest.

I seem to be still in the sowing mode with no sign of a bountiful harvest.  What I thought was going to be new ground with new opportunities for harvest I now realize looks a lot like the old place.  And yet there is fertile ground here, in spite of rumors to the contrary.    I keep turning to the Master Gardener looking for new cultivation techniques, a fresh approach to the ancient practice of sowing seeds.  It all looks like ordinary gardening to the neighbors who are involved in more exciting pursuits, but I've never done it like this before.  Maybe I need to focus more on doing it and less on trying to present it as something fresh and new to those who surely see how extraordinarily ordinary it is.  Maybe I need to focus on what I'm doing and be less distracted by those who are moving on to greener pastures.

"Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up" (Galatians 6:9).  

Faithfulness means continuing to study and practice creative agricultural methods while trusting the growth and harvest to the "Lord of the harvest" (Matthew 9:38).  I need to have faith in the viability of the seed, faith in the fertility of the soil, faith that rain will come when needed, and faith that there will someday be a harvest if I don't give up.  My ministry results may never look like anything worth looking at but I have a farmer's heart and cannot NOT sow seeds when the weather warms and the soil is dark and rich.

Wednesday, October 01, 2014

I Love Juvenile Delinquents!

I'm at the library on a Wednesday morning -- working.  In walk two teenage boys.  School is in session.  They are not there.  Uh-oh.  Suspended.  Again.  One was expelled last year but later returned.  He came to me during that time asking for a job.  At 14, he is too young for me to hire even if I had an opening.  But I had a project that required multiple hours and offered to pay him to do it.  He did an excellent job with it.

Now he's back in school.  Except he's not.  He and his "step-cousin" (quotes indicate a need for a wedding to make it official) are suspended.  I ask how they managed that.  I don't comprehend much of their answer, but get the gist of it:  It's the school's fault.  And they have managed to be disrespectful to the wrong person.

Cool!  I'm all over this.  Do they need to do community service?  Because I love unpaid young laborers!  It's a gorgeous day and I have landscaping to weed!  Work at the library counts as community service.  How can I get in on this opportunity?

How I would love to reach into the lives of these young men.  And "young men" they truly are.  In other times and places they would be moving into an adult world, spending time with the older men, learning the ways of the tribe and their place within it.  In our time and culture, they are expected to sit quietly at a desk, pencil in hand, and take in the wisdom of their teachers.  It's obviously not working for them.  They need an alternative curriculum.

How in the world can I, a 56-year-old library lady, make a difference?  I'm old enough to be their grandmother.  Why would they have any respect for me?

My enthusiasm catches them and they agree to pull my weeds.  Except they need to eat lunch first.  Off they go, returning 20 minutes later.  Is it all right if they use the library computers before they start?  Ah, these child-men.  So used to asking permission for everything they do.  I ask, "Am I in charge of you?"  The older one cops an attitude and says, "No, I'm in charge of you!"  Ha ha.  Juvenile humor.  What a cut-up.  I smile and let it slide.  I hold him no malice for the comment.  I wish he could indeed feel in charge of something that would require him to pull his act together.

Since they seem to be open to direction, I offer to tell them they have ten minutes before they need to get back to work.  After fifteen minutes I hunt them down and lament that they are caught up in computer stuff and I'll never get any work out of them.  They're not sure how to take me, but they turn in the computers and go off to ask the town clerk about working at the library instead of the job she assigned them.

They come back with the disappointing news that they have to finish the task she assigned them first.  Aha, so there IS someone in charge of them.  Or at least one of them.  The other claims he isn't required to do community service and is helping only because he's bored.  I have no way of knowing how much truth he's telling as he carefully averts his eyes while talking.

It doesn't matter.  I love honesty, but have no expectation that juvenile delinquents will speak truth to me.  Why would they?  I listen carefully and add a grain of salt to every word.  I try to avoid making any response that depends on them telling me the truth.  But sometimes I detect genuine truth slipping out betwixt and between the lies and am grateful for every morsel of honesty they offer me.  Because I love them.  I know much more about them through my small-town connections than they know about me.  I know they are in difficult home situations.  I know the older one is attentive to his younger sisters.  I know he lied convincingly about his age so he could attend VBS a couple of years ago.  (But was eventually found out and told not to return.)  I know his "step-father" (more quotes for lack of a different wedding) is facing charges of disorderly conduct.  I know his previous stepfather died of cancer a few years ago and the extended family has grieved deeply.  My heart aches for him, a boy/man who has managed to alienate a lot of adults in his short life as a less-than-model student.

They return again.  They're not sure if they want to pull weeds.  We go out together and look at the weeds and they pull a few, but landscaping doesn't seem to be their passion.  They stay long enough for me to probe a little about the impact of this "time off" on their school career.

How I wish I could make a difference for these young men.  But all I know to do is to love them and embrace them with my words for as long as they hang around and then let them go.  My day is richer for the time I have spent interacting with them.  Is theirs better for having been seen and loved by me?  Is love enough?  And if not, what is more?