Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Deeper roots…

When my backyard garden finishes growing this fall, I’m most excited for the carrots. Nature’s candy, Tabitha and I call them, though we’ve never planted any before. Indeed, several years ago, I wouldn’t have bothered since carrots contribute nothing to taste, I believed. Then, I learned a roasting technique that softened the insides while browning the outsides, shocking my tongue into satisfied submission.

I’m worried, however, that my homegrown carrots won’t prove up-to-par come harvest. Being root vegetables, I wonder whether we prepared the soil deep enough. I mean, they don’t grow into open air, but into dirt and rocks and whatever’s waiting. If there’s a layer of compacted clay four inches deep, say, won’t the carrots’ growth arrest prematurely?! I’m no farmer (obviously); more a hobby gardener who apparently doesn’t spend time on frivolous concepts like ‘research.’ So maybe my worry is foolish. I won’t know until fall.

Yet haven’t we read the Parable of the Sower, who tossed seeds into various soils? One famously unproductive type in that story was the shallow dirt with no room for roots. The sun beat and nascent plants struggled until their promise ultimately withered. Maybe it works the same for carrots. Stands to reason…

And what of faith communities? Sometimes a great ministry idea fails to bloom, however well-tended with money, people, work and energy, all because, essentially, the timing’s wrong. A neighborhood, perhaps, could prove unprepared to accept a new community garden. So they organize such strong resistance that the sponsoring church pulls support. That didn’t happen to our garden, but it was oh-so-close, wasn’t it? I heard of a community in Tennessee recently that held a public meeting on interfaith acceptance. That’s a great idea, I think, and deeply needed as America grows more religiously diverse. Yet this town proved ill-prepared; the soil was shallow, you might say. They booed and jeered, harassed and bullied until the meeting ended prematurely. And their Muslim neighbors, scared and hurt, cowered back into the shadows.

In Bosnia-Herzegovina, where I’m soon to travel, interfaith soil runs hundreds of years deep. It’s not rock free, of course, or nutrient rich in every place for every believer. Just two decades ago, Orthodox, Catholic and Muslim folk killed each other with savage intensity. Which is really a neutral way of saying that some communities massacred others, Muslims receiving the most brutal treatment, from what I’ve read. Sadly, this genocidal violence salted over centuries of history of neighbors living in relative peace. Not all the time, but in many ways, everyday people got along fine. Old stories tell of mothers praying in an Orthodox church at sunrise, mosque at noon, Catholic cathedral in the evening, simply because they were so scared a son would die of sickness, any worship form would do. Traditionalists would, certainly, abhor this mixing of soils, this blatant apostasy. I’m inclined to give the mothers a pass, even celebrate such interfaith, tolerant attitudes. Mix away!

Because when all complex sermons finish, at the end of every elaborate ritual, there’s usually just a yearning worshipper with troubles aplenty desperate to live with hope. And details of theological intricacy rarely matter when you need help, or your neighbor does. You seek love. You give love. That’s what good religion inspires. Unfortunately, when we live only among like-minded believers, history suggests, our soil easily becomes shallow. We’ll believe, “God doesn’t really care about my neighbor, unless s/he thinks like me.” I worry that’s true for some in our country, given our young and predominantly monoculture religious past. That’s why I’m going to Bosnia-Herzegovina on sabbatical, to learn what I can from their deeper roots. Surely, some will show me scars, burned-out buildings proving that even long-cultivated soil can poison. But I’m also expecting to find other stories of more people sheltering terrified neighbors and living with kindness. After all, even the humble carrot transforms into nature’s candy when prepared well. And I’m convinced that prayer and worship, faith and community prepare human souls to love more often than judge or hate.

I’ll look forward to sharing what I find with you. In the meantime, look after our gardens, won’t you?

Grace and Peace,
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Monday, July 1, 2013

Summer adventure…

The next two editions of this newsletter won’t include a letter from me. You know by now I’ll be on sabbatical, traveling in Bosnia-Herzegovina and Turkey. I’ll miss the weekly rhythm of sermon, visiting, writing, worship, but am grateful for this gift of extended rest and study.

I hope Plymouth Creek is too. It’s not just my sabbatical, after all. All of us can use this time for renewal, rededication and prayer. Some churches even hire a sabbatical minister. We chose a different route. Four separate pastors will lead worship the eight weeks I’m gone. You’ll love their ministry, I’m certain!

And the Servant Leaders will take on pastoral responsibility. Please contact them with any concerns, or members of the Board. Still, I asked the SL Team what questions they wanted me to ponder while I’m gone, that they (and you!) could also explore. Predictably, their thoughts were interesting. Here’s what they said.

Again, part of my travel will include visiting churches and mosques from faith traditions quite different, and often older, than ours. With that background, one Servant Leader wondered, “What can we learn from these communities about hospitality?” That notion has been a focus of our ministry together these past years. We’ve changed the furniture, adapted our worship practices, added components to our ministry in hope that all visitors and guests will feel welcome. Nevertheless, building a fully robust culture of hospitality is always a work in progress. New people arrive. Old concerns endure. We still need to figure out an effective way to include more families with children. Plus, great hospitality takes more than being kind when someone comes to church. It demands pro-active initiative, constant hospitality innovation, bringing the values and love we cultivate within our walls to people beyond them in need of community. The places I visit this summer may have fresh ideas and creative solutions. So will you, I believe, when you put minds and spirits to the task.

Another question offered was, “How can Plymouth Creek engage the community around us more effectively?” That’s related to the previous question, of course, with greater emphasis on service and mission. We already do much for our neighborhoods and local residents in need, about which we should be proud. Yet a critical component of our church’s vision includes becoming a beacon, a leader, a model to all of the astounding power of Christian service through love. In other words, we should never be content to do enough, or even a little more. You have generous hearts, creative minds, and could tackle bigger problems than we do now. What issues aren’t being addressed around us that Plymouth Creek could take on? Might we provide local leadership in overcoming, say, suburban homelessness or environmental destruction? The countries I’ll visit wrestle with many problems, thankfully some dangerous ones we don’t face. Still, I’ll be looking for their wisdom, and excited to hear yours.

The last question posed was quite insightful; I suspect it’ll yield good fruit. Someone said, “In some of those older churches or mosques, immediately when you walk in, the power and glory of God’s majesty feels so present. Could we capture more of that in our church?” Smart observation, right?! And to my mind, we’re already on the way. I love our sanctuary’s high ceiling, large windows, open structure, intimate feel. It teaches one of Christianity’s most enduring and lovely paradoxes: God is always bigger than we imagine, yet closer than our next breath. What would it take to enhance that feeling? Not just with our facilities, but what we do. Are there certain worship forms or prayers, weekly activities or public statements that signal to virtually anyone who encounters our church that, truly, God is in this place, waiting with grace?

So that’s the project. I’ve been charged and commissioned, and now I hope you are too! Thank you, in advance, for the profound learning you’ll uncover and share. In the meantime, enjoy your summer. Stay cool, and rest up! There’s a Kingdom of God yet to come…and it’s ours to help build.

Grace and Peace,
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