Who Are We? Who is our Neighbor? What is God calling us to do?

From the Interim Pastor:

In May I led a Session Retreat in which the Elders were asked to look at the mission and ministry of the church. Session members were invited to look at the life of the congregation through several “lenses”: Bible Study; the cultural context in 21st century America; Leadership Styles; Membership, Attendance, and Giving; and the Life Cycle of the Church.

It’s easy to recognize that the cultural context in which the Church is called to ministry has changed dramatically since the time of the church’s founding in 1962: Mainline decline shown in loss of membership across the country, the rise of the “Nones” (those with no religious affiliation), a shift in definition of “regular attendance” at church from what used to be 3 or 4 Sundays a month to perhaps two times or even one time a month; 90% of pastors wishing to make their own housing arrangements, whether owning or renting; and movement through what is called “The Life Cycle of the Congregation”.

Let’s focus on the Life Cycle for the moment. The Session and I looked at a model of church life cycles that I had learned at an Interim Ministry Workshop in Florida. Other models use terminology like “Start, Incline, Recline, Decline, and Death” to cover the stages of a congregation’s life cycle. Those words are a bit mechanical, so we used a model which compared a living congregation to a living human being. The broad stages are Birth, Growth, Prime, Redevelopment or Revitalization, and Aging.

In looking at the internal life of a congregation, there are four main areas that contribute to a church’s vitality: Vision (Purpose, Core Values, Mission); Relationships (Experiences, Discipleship); Programs (Events, Ministry, Services, Activities); and Management (Accountability, Systems, Resources).

At the start of any church’s life, Vision is paramount: Who Are We? Who is our Neighbor? What is God calling us to do? This grows into Relationships and Programs, along with Maintenance, and a church at its prime of “Adulthood” is characterized as VRPM—all cylinders are firing, and everything is strong.

As with any living organism, the church can change, and as something becomes less of a priority or less of a stated purpose, it gets characterized by a “small v” or “small r” or “small p” or a “small m”. As a church moves past its mature peak, more letters are in lower case.

Working independently, two groups of elders each came up with the same conclusion of where BPC is at this point in its ministry: vRpM. Relationships are important, as is Maintenance, but vision and program have suffered. The Elders all agreed that some degree of revitalization is necessary for the church.

The Presbyterian Church in Burlington is indeed a living, breathing organism with a rich history, but there are issues to be faced as the congregation seeks to live up to its full potential. The Session’s evaluation leads to the conclusion that new work has to be done on Vision and Program to restore some of the vitality of previous years.

This is the point at which you, the members of the church come in. Session will be making a final decision on July 15 on what the Mission Study we are required to do will look like. No matter what shape the Mission Study takes, your input, your opinions, your thoughts, your prayers, your concerns are all necessary to helping the church plan for the future under a new pastor. The church must re-establish its vision and begin to rebuild some of its program, and put all that in writing, which will be the basis upon which the pastoral search is conducted. Essentially, this is the church saying to potential pastors: “This is who we are and what we feel God is calling us to do. Do you want to be a part of this and share your gifts to help us pursue our calling?”

When the Mission Study rolls out in the fall, in whatever form it takes, be assured that you will be an important part of that, and your participation is absolutely necessary to help us discern God’s will for the future of the Presbyterian Church in Burlington. Stay tuned for more word from the Session as the summer continues………

The Peace of the Lord be with you,


The Koheleth Syndrome

This Sunday we’re going to hear from two very different voices in the Bible. The first voice is from a man called “Koheleth” (Hebrew for “the Preacher”) who wrote the Book of Ecclesiastes. Folks of my generation (and older) may remember the song “Turn, Turn, Turn (To Everything There is a Season)” in which the late Pete Seeger put the words of Ecclesiastes Chapter 3 to music: “For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven: a time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted; a time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up” and so on.

The focus on Sunday will be on Chapter 1, in which Koheleth writes, “Vanity of vanities, says the Preacher, vanities of vanities! All is vanity! What do people gain from all the toil at which they toil under the sun? . . .What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done; there is nothing new under the sun. . .I saw all the deeds that are done under the sun, all is vanity and a chasing after the wind.”

Oh, my! What a downer, we might say. Apparently there was some debate among the rabbis when they were putting together the canon of the Hebrew Bible as to whether Koheleth’s voice should be included. Ultimately, his voice is heard, and in fact the whole book of Ecclesiastes is read during the Jewish festival of Sukkoth, or the Feast of Tabernacles, an especially joyous time. Koheleth’s voice is read to add a serious note to the festivities. Presbyterian minister and author Frederick Buechner summarizes Koheleth’s message this way: “There is nothing new under the sun, Koheleth says, with the result that everything that there is under the sun is both old, and as you might imagine in all that heat, it stinks.”

Over against Koheleth we will hear the voice of Jesus in Mark’s Gospel, the 5th chapter, where he heals a woman who has suffered a terrible physical condition over the course of many years, finding no relief in doctors or other helpers. In the midst of a chaotic crowd pressing in on Jesus, who is on his way to respond to another request for help, she touches his cloak—and is healed, with Jesus saying “Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace, and be healed of your disease. ” She can live once again in wholeness.

Jill Duffield, editor of the Presbyterian Outlook points out that out of chaos and confusion, there can be newness and healing as she reflects on the church murders in Charleston SC, and the powerful voices of forgiveness that have been raised. Little did Jill know and little would Koheleth suspect that by the end of the week, many states, corporations, and institutions would take the step of removing the Confederate flag, due to its association with past terror and racism. Yes Koheleth, there is much that does not change, but as Jesus said in Revelation, “Behold, I make all things new.”


Why I Love the Catholic Church

This Sunday our scripture lesson will be taken from Paul’s Letter to the Romans, the 12th chapter, which includes these words in verses 9 through 13: “Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor. Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers.” 

In my HarperCollins Study Bible, that portion is entitled, “Marks of the True Christian”. Notice that “hospitality” is an important mark of the Christian life. Paul is referring to hospitality in its deepest, spiritual sense, which is about creating a safe place for the stranger or for one in need, as opposed to having a nice dinner party with your best china for your closest friends. The 23rd Psalm has the image of God as a shepherd, but toward the end the image of God is that of a host, “preparing a table before me”. That’s a reference to the Middle Eastern custom of welcoming strangers in need, even if they were from a different tribe, because you yourself never knew when you might be on a journey, run out of water, and need to knock on a stranger’s door.

Words that include the root of hospitality are, of course, “hospital” and “hospice”, and it’s no accident that the Christian Church going back many years established the first hospitals and hospices to care for the sick and the dying.

Which leads me to my sermon for this Sunday: “Why I Love the Catholic Church”. I’ll pause for a moment to let that sink it. Here’s a clue about what I plan to preach on: it’s not about doctrine, it’s not about church structure, it’s not about the hieararchy—-it is about how the Catholic church in mission very directly impacted my father’s life. My father lived his life in a very small geographical circle, never going any further than perhaps 20 miles or so from New York City, but in his early years and in his last days he was nurtured by the Roman Catholic Church, and for that I am eternally grateful. It’s about how an Irish kid named Johnny O’Brien learned some important lessons that made him into a very good man, and how the people of the Roman Catholic Church were very much part of both his living and his dying. So, on Father’s Day, I invite you to be at church, sing “Faith of Our Fathers (and Mothers)”, and let me share the story of “Why I Love the Catholic Church.”

Miss Amy Womble Speaks Up

Apropos to this Sunday when we recognize and thank our Church School teachers and aides, the title of my sermon is “Miss Amy Womble Speaks Up”. I know that doesn’t give you much information, but trust me that when this retired first grade teacher did speak up in 1960’s North Carolina, the Holy Spirit was likely speaking through her.

Our scripture lesson for Sunday is Acts of the Apostles 15: 1-21, which is the account of the Great Council in Jerusalem where the Apostles wrestled with a major question for the first century church: should Gentiles–non-Jews–be required to submit to certain Jewish rituals before they could join the Christian church? After all, the Apostles had all been raised Jewish, and that’s what they had done, so why shouldn’t these new believers have to do the same thing we did? There was much discussion, and more to the point, much discernment, a word originating in Latin, meaning to “sort by sifting”, and ultimately “to distinguish”; “to perceive or recognize”; or to “make out clearly”. 

In a spiritual sense, Episcopal priest Frederick Schmidt observes, “discernment is fundamentally a practice of asking “God” questions instead of “I” questions. Discernment is less focused on our judgments, conclusions, and opinions, and involves opening up to what God wants in a particular situation.”

My sermon is a follow up to last week’s sermon in which we heard the words of John Calvin: “We are not our own; let not our reason nor our will, therefore, sway our plans and deeds. We are not our own; let us therefore not set it as our goal to seek what is expedient for us….We are God’s; let God’s wisdom and God’s will therefore rule all our actions.”

Those first Christian Apostles were in a discernment process, which involves framing the issue, hearing testimony, and looking to scripture, and making a decision. We’ll understand how they did that—and then understand how a Christian woman named Miss Amy Womble shared her testimony that ultimately carried the day.

We Are Not Our Own

Calvin wrote in his Institutes of the Christian Religion,
“We are not our own: let not our reason nor our will, therefore, sway our plans and deeds. We are not our own: let us therefore not set it as our goal to seek what is expedient for us according to the flesh. We are not our own: in so far as we can, let us therefore forget ourselves and all that is ours. Conversely, we are God’s: let us therefore live for him and die for him. We are God’s: let his wisdom and will therefore rule all our actions. We are God’s: let all the parts of our life accordingly strive toward him as our only lawful goal. (Rom. 14:8; cf. 1 Cor. 6:19) 

My sermon is drawn from I Peter 2: 1-12, in which Peter writes to his brothers and sisters in Christ, “Come to him (Christ), a living stone, though rejected by mortals yet chosen and precious in God’s sight, and like living stones, let yourselves be built into a spiritual house……”

Calvin says “We are not our own”; Peter writes, “Let yourselves be built (note that he does not say ‘build yourselves up’!) Looking to BPC’s future, we’re reminded that in all our deliberations and discussions, God is present and active through the power of the Spirit. Yes, in one sense this is “our church”, but ultimately it is God’s, and we need to be attentive to the work of the Spirit. Pastor Anthony Robinson, a respected church consultant, says more bluntly, “The church belongs to and owes it existence to God and not to us. God has created and claimed the church for God’s own purposes. The church, then, is not simply whatever we want it to be or what we choose to make of it. It is not simply a consumer-driven entity.”