Sunday, September 11, 2011

Ten years later

I offered prayers of remembrance in worship on the tenth anniversary of September 11, 2001.

Every person here today who is old enough to remember September 11, 2001, can tell you exactly what they were doing when they heard the news. It was an event that none of us will ever forget.

I was serving in my first parish, having been ordained earlier that year. The church treasurer, the chair of the finance committee, and I had scheduled a meeting that morning to begin work on the budget for the coming year. About eight a.m. Central time, the treasurer called me and said, "Turn on your television. Something has happened."

We had our meeting that day not at the church but across the street at the manse, where we could watch the unfolding story on television. Somehow we managed to come up with a preliminary budget for the coming year, even as we wondered if there would be a coming year.

In the days that followed, my own reaction was one of grief and horror. In that small Louisiana town where I was a pastor, people began leaving wreaths and bouquets of flowers at the door of the local fire station.

We had a prayer service at the church the following evening. That Sunday, I began my sermon with a question: "What do we tell the children?" And here's an excerpt of what I said that day, ten years ago:

For the Christian, in the end, it all comes back to faith. The God who created this world, the God who gave us life, is with us still. Our God is not a God who can be bombed out of existence by a terrorist.

God sent us his Son, Jesus the Messiah, that the world might be saved through him. Jesus lived among us, preaching a message of good news to the poor, while at the same time pointing out the shortcomings of those who lived only by the letter of the law and failed to fulfill its commands of caring for the poor, the widowed, and the orphaned. Jesus was seen as a threat to the authority of the religious leadership of his day, and they sought to do away with him. They succeeded. Or so they thought. But not even death could stop the power of God. In the face of the worst that evil could do, God triumphed. Jesus rose from the dead, and the world will never be the same again.

If you believe in the power of God to triumph over evil...
If you believe that Jesus through his resurrection has defeated death...
If you believe that all things are possible through the work of the Holy Spirit...
If your believe, in the words of the great hymn of Martin Luther,
"The body they may kill, God's truth abideth still, His Kingdom is forever"... 
Then the worst any terrorist can do is still no match for God's power and might.

So much has happened in our world in the last ten years. But today, ten years later, we remember.

Let us pray.

Holy God, you are a God who remembers us. Through the risen Lord, Jesus Christ, whom you did not forget in the grave, and through the power of the Holy Spirit, we pray to you this day. Remember us, O Lord, as we remember those who died ten years ago today, on September 11, 2001.

2,977 victims, including:

246 people on the four planes:
40 aboard United Flight 93 that went down in Shanksville, PA.
87 aboard American Flight 11, the first plane to hit the World Trade Center.
60 aboard United Flight 175, the second plane to hit the World Trade Center.
59 aboard American Flight 77 that hit the Pentagon.

2,606 who died in New York City, in the Twin Towers and on the ground.
125 at the Pentagon, including 55 military personnel.
411 emergency workers who responded to the scene, including
342 firefighters, 10 paramedics, 223 New York City police officers, and 37 Port Authority officers.

And 236 citizens from 90 countries besides the United States.

Remember, O Lord, those who were there that day and survived. Be with them in the moments when the traumatic memories come back and threaten to overwhelm them. Be with the loved ones of those who died and those who survived.

[We remembered by name those known to members of the congregation who were there that day, those who died and those who survived.]

Lord God, remember us, even as we remember them. Be with us in our grief and confusion, even all these years later, as we face the reality of the depth of evil in our world. Comfort us, and remind us that you are still our God, and that we can trust in you.

The evil that thought it had triumphed one Friday afternoon on a hill outside Jerusalem was wrong. The evil that thought it had triumphed on September 11, 2001, was also wrong. Thank you, God, for your Son, Jesus Christ. Through him, death has been defeated. Thank you, God. Amen.

Monday, September 5, 2011

Back to Syracuse University

Newhouse School of Public Communications in foreground;
                           Crouse College in background.
Newhouse I, where I studied magazine journalism

Took a quick trip to Syracuse this past weekend. It was my first trip back in 18 years, since the 1993 reunion. Went to the opening football game in the Carrier Dome, Syracuse vs. Wake Forest. Syracuse won in overtime.
It was quite an experience to see the campus again. A lot of the old Victorian houses have been torn down and there are sleek modern buildings in their place. Still a lot of beautiful old campus buildings, though. The Newhouse School of Public Communications (where I went to school) now is completed, with the third building of the complex opening in 2007. You can still major in magazines, but they have a lot of new majors like online journalism. Some of the students' work was displayed on the walls -- web page designs, storyboards for TV ads, magazine layouts. The future of journalism is in good hands with this new generation. Classes had been in session for five days, and late on a Friday afternoon of a holiday weekend, students were working in the news lab on giant Macintosh screens (you could see them from a glass window one story up) and huddled in meetings around their laptops working on group projects. The professors have them hitting the ground running, just like when I was a student there.
Over in Crouse College, the gorgeous red stone Victorian building with the stained glass windows, which looks like it belongs on a seminary campus or at Harry Potter's Hogwart's, the music students were practicing. Also hard at work on a Friday afternoon! I am sure some of the student body was down on Marshall Street lifting a few in the local bars, oops, you have to be 21 to do that now...anyway, some of the students were hard at work and no doubt some of them were hard at partying! College life.
A few trees were starting to turn in the Adirondacks on the way down to Syracuse. Fall will be here soon. With the amount of rain we've had this summer, I'm hoping the leaves will be gorgeous.
Sweetie the cat (18 pounds plus) is in my lap as I write. He sends his regards :-)

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

There once was a church...

We were traveling last weekend and stopped for the night at a hotel. Not knowing the area, we asked the desk staff where to find something to eat and were directed to a restaurant nearby. After checking out their website (doesn't everyone?) to see their menu, we went over there and had a very good meal.

It was one of those funky themed restaurants that caters to the young and hip. There was a bar in the center of the restaurant with tables and booths around the perimeter. It was a Friday night and the place was filling up fast, so we were seated upstairs, where from our booth we could look down at the bar and the decor. The restaurant theme was a woman aviator (aviatrix?) from the 1930s era: goggles and scarf and leather jacket. A plane of that time period (don't ask me what kind) was suspended from the ceiling and hung over the bar at a crazy angle, with the daring woman aviator seated in the cockpit.

Yeah, yeah, yeah. The summer menu featured lobster and it was quite good. We were more interested in the food than the decor. But sometime around the time my stomach was more full than the plate, I happened to focus on the rows of booths around us and noticed...they were pews. Real church pews. Oak, with the trinitarian three-lobed carvings on the ends. The numbered brass plates were still on the sides. Over toward the bar I saw a carved railing, mahogany, with the same three-lobed design: an altar rail, perhaps?

I took a closer look at the pew I was sitting in. Yes, it was the real thing, with old deep scratches in the wood. When the waiter came with the check, I asked him about the pews. Not surprisingly, he had no idea where they came from. The restaurant was quite busy by now, so I didn't bother trying to find the manager to ask for more information. But on the way out I noticed a round stained glass window on one wall. It had an inscription that it had been given in memory of someone. So it was real, too.

The aviatrix and the plane were fun, funky stuff. But why the salvaged pews, altar rail, and stained glass from a church? I hope some decorator didn't think that was old funky stuff too, that fit in with the decor because it was part of that era.

I thought of the people who had sat in those pews and prayed. Generations, probably. They had worshiped in those seats, sung hymns, sat through sermons (good and bad). They had attended weddings, baptisms, funerals in those pews. I wondered where the church had been and when it had closed, and how many people had been left at the end. (The possibility that it might have been torn down to build a bigger sanctuary, particularly in the Northeast, is slim to none.)

I suppose I can be a little bit glad that some parts of that sanctuary (and by extension, the people who worshiped there) have a new life, a new home, even in a restaurant. It is sad that it's hard to find someone who remembers who they were and what they did.

Will this new generation of young people remember going to church as a quaint old custom that their grandparents found important? Or will they have their own ways of worship? Plush theater seats in stadium-like auditoriums seating thousands? Alone at home (or in a coffee shop, an airport, anywhere) with a laptop/tablet/smartphone and an online "virtual church"?

I do think there will be a church in the future. But it may not be anything I recognize.

There is a huge discussion going on among mainline church leaders about the future of the church: whether there will be a future at all, and if so, what it will be like. But that subject would make a longer blog than I have time to write today. That would be a book. Or a series of books.

Psalm 90:

Lord, you have been our dwelling place in all generations.
Before the mountains were brought forth,
or ever you had formed the earth and the world,
from everlasting to everlasting, you are God.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Look! It's a website!

After months and months of work, at last, the new improved church website has gone live. Eeeeee!

Check it out:

The old website stopped working around the time I arrived at the church a year ago. (Coincidence?) It refused to let anyone go in and make updates. It was time for a change. We hired a consultant to help us with the technical stuff and develop a basic template, then it was off and running developing new content, especially photos that captured the essence of the building and the congregation.

I was quite surprised when I saw the stock image of a stained glass window on the old home page, when the church has such awesome stained glass windows of its own. So I spent some sunny afternoons last summer (and a couple in the winter) taking pictures of the windows. Not easy. If you're not a professional photographer and able to climb up on a scaffold, the perspective goes all wrong when you point upward with your camera from ground level. So I focused on sections of the stained glass rather than entire windows.

I don't know how old these windows are. The sanctuary dates from the 1870s, replacing a sanctuary that burned to the ground (a couple of years after major renovations) in 1867. I'm not sure if the windows were salvaged from the old church or were built for the new one, as some of the memorials date from the 1840s. But when you examine them closely, you can see that over time they have been repaired, and some repairs, shall we say, worked better than others. But the imperfections make the windows even more beautiful, in my opinion.

And then I started to learn how to edit photos with a program on my computer. I still have a lot to learn, but I was able to clean up some dark photos and crop others. I took more pictures, my husband did also, and others in the church did, too. I struggled to write copy. How do you capture the heart of a very diverse congregation in a few paragraphs? In the old days, I guess, I'd have typed a few lines, ripped the paper out of the typewriter, and tossed it in the wastebasket and reached for a fresh sheet. Today, of course, it's highlight and hit delete. And start over.

And then there was the learning curve for posting sermons and other videos on the Vimeo site and linking them to the website. More technical stuff to learn, and much more yet to learn.

Meanwhile, the youth director and church administrator were working on their own sections. There was much frustration and "Why won't it do what I want it to do?" The youth director summed it up well on her Facebook post, "Jesus saves, but this website won't."

And of course there were the queries and emails from the congregation and session of "When the heck are we going to get the new website up and running?" Guilt, guilt. It took the website consultant to give us the final push to get it all done. But yesterday afternoon, we told him, "Go live!" And here it is.

Still needs some tweaking. But now we can update it every week. And it looks great! In My Humble Opinion.

Friday, May 13, 2011

A new chapter

The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) made headlines this week when the 87th of 173 presbyteries voted in favor of Amendment 10-A to the Constitution of the church, giving it the majority needed for passage. The new amendment replaces G-6.0106b, the so-called "fidelity and chastity" amendment adopted in 1997, which prohibited anyone from being ordained to office in the church who did not practice fidelity in a marriage between a man and a woman or chastity in singleness. 10-A never mentions marriage or sexual orientation. Instead, it says that local governing bodies -- sessions in the case of elders and deacons, and presbyteries in the case of ministers -- shall examine candidates and determine their suitability for office. Which is what we have been doing all along, in fact. But by removing the fidelity and chastity wording, it leaves the decision whether to ordain someone who may not meet those criteria up to the local governing body.

Because I pastor the only Presbyterian church in my community, I figured someone from the local paper would call me for a quote, and they did. You can read the story here:

All the hoopla, lo these last fifteen years or more, has focused on the ordination of sexually active gays and lesbians. "Fidelity and chastity" was much broader than that -- it prohibited straight people living with a partner outside of marriage from being ordained, too, and I suspect there are a lot more of them in our churches than gay couples. (Think of older widowed and divorced church members who, for any number of reasons, decided not to remarry but to live with someone.) And let's face it, over the years, there were probably a number of people ordained to office who were cheating on their spouses but never "self-acknowledged" that they were, so hey, they were off the hook. But the focus was on those who were openly gay.

Until a little over a year ago, I had never been married. During the years I was going through the arduous process that leads to ordination as a Minister of Word and Sacrament in the PC(USA), I fully expected that someone, somewhere, in one of my innumerable meetings with committees on preparation for ministry, committees on ministry, and pastor search committees, would ask me about my sexual orientation. To my surprise, no one ever did. And I never brought it up. In the secular world, where I worked for twenty years, federal law prohibits an employer from asking questions about marital status, children, etc. In the church, it's no holds barred: you can be asked anything. But no one asked. Doesn't mean there wasn't some speculation raised or assumptions made when I was out of the room. But I never heard about it.

Attitudes toward gay people have been shifting in the United States since "fidelity and chastity" became part of our church's constitution in 1997. This became clear to me just after last Christmas, when Congress voted to repeal "don't ask, don't tell," a policy dating from around that same era, with hardly a whimper, and essentially with the blessing of military leaders. I suspect that as more and more people have come out in recent years, both public figures we see on television and people we know in our private lives, that being gay now has a face. It's no longer "those people." It's our neighbors, friends, and co-workers. And surprise! Gay people are not demons, after all. They are ordinary folk, going about their lives -- and their faith -- as best they can, day by day.

And in the church, I do think that some pastors who have been particularly vocal in opposing the ordination of gays and lesbians are starting to realize this too. It's not about "those people from outside" who are trying to "destroy" the church. We are talking about children we baptized, who went to Sunday school and Vacation Bible School and confirmation classes, who professed their faith in their youth, who suddenly were no longer welcome in their churches when they announced that they were gay. I think some of these pastors are slowly realizing that gay people have families. Maybe some of these family members have become brave enough to go to these pastors and say, "My child/grandchild/sibling is gay, and when you say they are categorically not fit for office in the church because they are gay, I find that I can no longer worship here."

Some large-church pastors have been rattling their sabers in the last few months, as it became more and more likely that G-6.0106b was going to be removed from the Constitution. Their latest missive suggests that they want to form a new denomination without leaving the old one (with its great health insurance and pension plan, but I'm being cynical here), where they can set their own ordination standards and do as they please with regard to funding the work of the PC(USA). I have no idea how that idea is going to fly with the rest of the denomination, but time will tell how it will all work out.

It's a new chapter in the life of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). I don't think there will be radical change all at once; I mean, after all, we're the church. We don't move that fast. (A little bit more cynicism here.) But maybe, just maybe, after all these years of fighting, we can take a deep breath and say, "Okay, let's move on. Let's get back to doing the work that Christ has called us to do in the world." Not everyone is going to go along. But I do think that many hearts and minds have been changed over the years. The Holy Spirit is in our midst, still at work in people's lives. Amen!

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Watch the skies!

The photo doesn't show it well, but the white stuff is really coming down today in what they'll probably call the Great Groundhog Day Blizzard. The Weather Channel trumpeted that 100 million people would be affected by this weather system, which has included thunderstorms, damaging winds, tornadoes, ice, snow, and combinations of the above. Here in the North Country we are finally getting a snow day, to the delight of everyone who doesn't have to go to work today (including me!) and the not-so-delight to people who have to be out driving in it, like the UPS driver who slid a little as he turned the corner on our street trying to avoid the snow plow in the cul-de-sac.

We went outside about three hours ago and shoveled and snow-blowed the driveway, walkways, and steps. You'd hardly guess now that they had ever been touched. The snow is really coming down! It is about ten degrees, so the snow is very light and fluffy and won't make a snowball, much less a snowperson. It looks a little bit like powdered sugar piled up on the deck -- a LOT of powdered sugar. There's some sleet mixed in with it, little white icy pellets that look like the salt crystals we spread around to melt the ice that builds up on the front steps.

Snow is silent. Rain makes a fair amount of noise: tapping or hissing or glub-glubbing as it comes down the gutterspouts. But you don't know that it's snowing unless you look out. Except for the welcome sound of the snowplow scraping down the street and the salt and sand rattling onto the pavement, the snow deadens sound. Beautiful. Peaceful. Awesome.

I have a lot of snowless years to make up for, a lot of childhood days in New Orleans dreaming of what snow must be like. Today is going a long way toward filling that void.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Always winter, always Christmas!

I took this photo on a recent day trip to Montreal. This lamp-post in Parc Mont Royale reminded me of the lamp-post in C.S. Lewis' The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. At the beginning of the story, when Lucy goes from the wardrobe of fur coats into the forest of snowy fir trees in Narnia, she finds a lamp-post in the middle of the woods. And here is another one.

In Narnia, Lucy meets Mr. Tumnus, the faun, who tells her of the White Witch, who makes it always winter and never Christmas. In the North Country, it's been winter now for two or three months, and there are two or three more to go. It only seems like it's always winter.

But in the North Country, I've discovered, people leave their decorations up after Christmas. Wreaths, bows, lights, everything. Some continue to turn on their lights in the evenings. It really is neat -- I like to say that the city looks like a Currier & Ives Christmas card. When I asked why people leave their decorations up after Christmas, I got three responses:

1. It's too darn cold to take them down.
2. The nights are so long and dark, the lights cheer people up at night.
3. We leave them up until spring comes, or maybe Easter. (Easter is not necessarily spring in the North Country.)

I'd like to think that people in the North Country have read The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe and have taken it to heart. If it's going to be "always winter," then by golly, it's going to be "always Christmas." Aslan is here, even in the dead of winter. Take that, White Witch!