Monday, June 26, 2006


Thus far, I have failed to introduce any thematic cohesiveness to this blog. Subjects have ranged from gardening to writing to religion. The overwhelming majority of out-of-town (off the search engines) visitors come by to read my front porches entry from last September. It doesn’t appear from the counter stats that they bother to wander around once they get here, just pop in for that one entry and leave. I’ve done a couple of follow-up posts but Yahoo is happy with the one from September and after a brief moment of fame as the #2 hit for a search for "front porches" on the MSN search engine, I'm no longer getting traffic from that direction. I guess I could make the entire blog about front porches in response to obvious interest among the general public but there are too many other interesting topics.

One subject I don’t think I’ve tried is politics. For the most part, I don’t get too excited about the subject. It took me a while after I was hired by the public library board to figure out that I work for a local government unit. My small salary is underwritten by the taxpayers of the township in which I reside. The library is governed by state law and I’ve become acquainted with such agencies as the Library Development Office which is part of the Indiana State Library, the State Board of Accounts, and the Department of Local Government Finance. I’ve been favorably impressed with the "bureaucrats" I’ve met in these agencies.

I’ve also become better acquainted with the state legislative process. I’ve discovered that the quest to impress the voting public often outstrips the grasp state politicians have of the true nature of the issues they address. It turns out that being a politician at the state level doesn’t require a degree in rocket science. (Not that such a degree would qualify one for governing.) Rather, it requires the ability to sound good and argue persuasively even when you don’t know what you’re talking about. This may sound cynical but I write it not in derision but simply as an observation. It's a skill I can admire from a distance but which I have little desire to learn.

This week I attended a town meeting. I’m not sure I really belonged there. I live one mile outside the city limits of the town I call home. I don’t vote for town officials. I don’t pay town taxes. I don’t have town services. However, the library is inside the city limits and the topic of discussion was the future of the town, a subject in which I have a stake both as a resident of the larger community and as the town librarian. So I went. I like meetings. I like people and there are almost always people at meetings. Plus, meetings tend to be held in those elusive, neutral "front porch" settings.

This particular meeting was on Thursday evening. Sometime over the past week or so, the three members of the town council met and ended up in conflict with the town park board. By the time the weekly local newspaper went to press on Tuesday afternoon, three of five park board members had resigned, as well as the entire seven-member board of the annual town fair to be held in less than two months, throwing the local political scene into chaos. I was a little leery of the Thursday meeting but headed out into a stormy night to catch the action firsthand rather than relying on the newspaper report.

The meeting itself didn’t strike me as being particularly tense, but I did notice a lack of professionalism and competency for the task at hand. I wasn’t sure the facilitators were collecting anything of value or that they’d know what to do with it if they did. However, I could be surprised. Perhaps there was more going on there than I observed.

The meeting was adjourned as another storm moved through the area and the rain was falling in sheets. I found no conversational opportunities in the building and moved out to the covered front porch to wait for a break in the rain. The group that followed me out the door didn’t appear to notice me as I edged towards the back of the porch. One attendee, the most offended in the blow-up with the town council, treated us all to a colorful report of the ongoing conflict. The contrast between his generally positive contribution to the meeting itself and his bitterly negative attitude on the porch startled me. I later heard a second-hand report from the other side of the conflict that only two of the attendees were truly interested in the meeting and the rest were there simply to agitate.

I take back all I’ve written about community groups being easier to work with than church groups. It may be generally true for community groups that aren’t caught up in politics but right now I’m deeply grateful that I don’t have to be involved in local politics beyond working with the library board, the seven members of which are appointed by five different elected bodies in the county.

I have seldom heard such bitterness and lack of Christian charity as I’ve heard this week. The conflict involves some of the most concerned citizens of this small, struggling town. It will be interesting to see how they manage to resolve their differences so that they can live and work together.

I think I’m glad for the one mile between my home and the city limits and the two miles to the town hall. It's nice to live outside the war zone.

Friday, June 16, 2006

God's church. My community.

I hear a lot of sermons. The cumulative effect keeps me grounded within the Christian community but most of them pass over me with little impact on an individual basis. Each is one person’s attempt to interpret the message of the Bible and apply it to my life. It’s the time I spend actually reading the Bible with openness to being changed by it that has greater impact on my life, along with carefully-selected books.

Sermons, however, leave echoes in my mind. One of those ehoes has been reinforced multiple times: “It’s not your church; it’s God’s church.” This is used as a rebuke to those saying this or that about “my church” and is said by the same people who remind us, “It’s not about you.” The idea is to discourage power struggles in the church by lessening the sense of ownership.

I recently wrote something about my community and the echo popped up with a slight modification. Is it my community? I tried to think of how that phrase could denote an unhealthy sense of ownership. I couldn’t quite get there. Who could ever claim to own a community in the sense of having authority over it? A mayor? A police chief? Anyone less than a liege lord? Obviously, I’m none of those and I’m not claiming blanket authority when I refer to “my community”. Rather, I am identifying myself with the people living around me, primarily those in the local public school district. I have chosen to make my home among them and to be part of the common life they represent. It’s not simply the community in which my family lives as outsiders, keeping some separate identity. It’s part of who we are. It’s the community my husband and I have chosen to embrace as home for the past 27 years and for which we take some sense of responsibility, not because we own it but because it has taken us in and we owe it loyalty and generosity. It’s my community, and building it up by every means available to me is to my own benefit.

Those same sorts of things could be said about the local church of which I have been an active member for the entire 27 years I’ve been part of the local community. It’s “my church” in that I have chosen to identify myself with it and to take some measure of responsibility for its welfare. I owe it loyalty and generous support. I work to make it better. Building up the church is mutually beneficial to all involved.

When I talk about my community and look for ways to make it a better place to live, doors open wide with opportunities for me. I am the director of the only public library district within the school district. I represent the community on the county adult literacy council. I could do much more if I had more time. No one ever says to me, “It’s not your community. We don’t need your interference here.”

In contrast, if I mention “my church” and look for ways to make it a better center for Christian worship, the echoes pop up and remind me that it’s not my church. There are service opportunities there but no roles equivalent to those offered to me by the broader community. It’s God’s church and He hasn’t chosen me for His leadership team.

I’m finding that I’m slowly adjusting my viewpoint to accept this message that the church I attend and of which I am an official member is not my church. The challenges facing leadership are daunting and, if there is a way out of the wilderness in which we’re wandering, finding it will require significant wisdom and insight. I would gladly accept an invitation to be part of a team effort to find that elusive path. That invitation has not been issued, either formally or informally. My views are too radical by local standards to make me a good candidate for the leadership team of a rural, conservative, evangelical (dying) church.

Combining the message that it’s not my church with that lack of invitation to be a part of the leadership team leaves me with little choice other than to let it go and drop all sense of responsibility for the future of the church. It’s not my church. I’m not responsible for what happens there.

On the other hand, the church-of-which-I-am-an-active-member-but-which-is-not-mine is part of my community. One way to serve the community is to serve within the church as I am able and to share the good news of the gospel of Jesus Christ that is at the core of the church. I believe that the best thing I can do for my community is to take the good news from the church out of its stale, musty housing and offer it to those outside its walls. The church may be dying but the good news of reconciliation with the God of the universe through Jesus Christ and the resulting life of grace and peace is as fresh and welcome and vital in the 21st century as ever.

God’s church. My community. I think it’s time for me to leave the church in God’s hands and focus on the people who are willing to be part of my community.

Comments, anyone?

Sunday, June 04, 2006

The influence of books

The subject of this entry comes from two different stimuli: 1) A suggestion that for Memorial Day, we honor someone who has been a great blessing in our lives. (I’m slow in getting around to responding.) 2) A sermon series based on a book I’ve been through twice, once as a personal encounter ten or more years ago and once as a teacher.

I dug out the book behind the sermon series, thinking it would be of value to go through it again. There are eight chapters. As I scanned the titles of the chapters, I realized that the lessons in the book have already been incorporated into my life as much as they probably will be. They’re fairly good lessons. If I find the time and my shared internet connection is available enough I will listen to the sermons, but I think I’ve pretty much mined the book.

I mentioned in an earlier entry that I was surprised by how many of my current habits find their roots in Stephen Covey’s The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. I don’t know that I’ve incorporated enough to be even moderately effective, but that book has made a difference in my life.

Obviously, my life (and everyone else’s) is a conglomeration of influences. Most of those influences are people. Yet, I can’t point to any one person who has played a “larger than life” role. Each has their place in sculpting me into what I am today, chipping away here and there, changing who and what I am. Many have been a blessing to me. None that I can think of have stepped beyond their place and prompted a complete change in direction in my life.

In contrast to the people, I can point to several books that had immediate and lasting influence on my life. Perhaps the strongest entry in the field is, A Christian’s Secret to a Happy Life by Hannah Whitall Smith. It was an accidental meeting when I discovered that book. My first clue that it existed came from a Catherine Marshall book given to me by my sister-in-law. Marshall mentioned it in passing as an example of a book that had been of great value to a friend but which she found dull and lifeless. When I later found a little paperback edition on the shelves in the church office, I recognized the title and decided to see what it was about. It was the exact book that I needed at that time in my life. I invited it in and it took up residence in my heart. That was 20 years ago and its influence continues to this day.

There have been others along the way. My Utmost for His Highest, a classic daily devotional of the transcribed words of Oswald Chambers. Stephen Covey’s book. Celebration of Discipline by Richard Foster. That was another accidental encounter. If I remember correctly, it was a delivery of kids to church camp that took me past a Christian bookstore. I stopped in to browse the shelves for a book I wanted to read but which I couldn’t even begin to describe to myself. I couldn’t figure out what I was searching for; I only knew that I wasn’t finding it. I left the store empty-handed. Back in town, I stopped past the church and chatted with my pastor for a few moments. I don’t know what I said but he said, “Here’s a book you need to read,” and handed me Richard Foster’s book. It was exactly what I had been seeking. Several habits of my moderately effective life trace back to that book rather than the Covey book. (Perhaps that pastor who shared his library with me counts as one of those “great blessing” people, simply by knowing what book to hand me and when.)

Maybe the difference between people and books is that I can go back to the books and find them unchanged. I can find within the pages the same message that spoke to my soul and prompted change in my living. I’m often surprised to find the headwaters of a stream I now take for granted in a forgotten book. In contrast, the people have all changed and my memory is unreliable. I don’t know which of my character traits trace back to a stray comment here or there by a teacher or friend or stranger.

I often feel like I’m an alien in my world. As someone told me not long ago, “You have a different way of looking at things.” It wasn’t meant as a positive description. Being different is often lonely. The recent additions to my list of influential books have been those that make me feel that there are others like me in other places. I discovered a label for myself in those books – a postmodern Christian. In my everyday world, that phrase is an oxymoron. One either has a postmodern worldview or a Christian worldview. The two are incompatible because postmodernity denies absolute truth and Christianity depends on absolute truth. How refreshing it has been to discover successful writers who are citizens of both those seemingly incompatible countries and who make a living expressing my core beliefs in written form and selling them. I didn’t even know they were mentionable, let alone marketable.

What a blessing the printing press has been to me.